Have you ever thought of giving your Players something really cool and challenging? How about giving them a real castle to run, or perhaps even a small kingdom?
At first the idea may seem pretty hardcore — after all, a castle or a kingdom are no trivial matters, which means that the Players would play characters of significant power, right? Well, not necessarily. Of course it depends on the setting, but politically independent or autonomous territories can well be composed of just its seat of power and a few hamlets, located somewhere among fields and forests. The kingdom of Lancre from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a good example of such a tiny state: away from the civilization, surrounded by mountains, virtually non-existent as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Even more politically organized settings usually have some sort of remote region where such entities may exist, for example Warhammer Fantasy has its Border Princes. Therefore, ruling a state is well within the player characters’ reach: it may be microscopic, inhabited by a thousand people or so and protected by an army whose numbers can be counted on fingers and toes of a war veteran, but hey — it is independent and able to keep its head high!
Of course, a more common entity than a tiny state on its own is a feudal province, normally ruled by a lord of some sort — for example a knight or a bishop. While not exactly independent, such lords are normally fairly autonomous and do not need to concern themselves with their sovereign too often, except when their military assistance is needed. Making your Players vassals to a higher power may well be more realistic in your campaign than giving them a whole country to rule, but is still unlikely to pose many additional restrictions on them. (Explaining feudalism and power relations during Middle Ages is well beyond the scope of this article, so please consult historical sources for details.)
The issue of whether the Players are almighty rulers or “mere” vassals is not overly important here, as both positions often present similar challenges and ways to deal with them. Also of lesser importance is how they found themselves in this position: by inheritance, as a reward for their deeds for the kingdom or by any other method (including decapitation of their predecessor). What is important is that their occupation of throne is more or less settled and at least formally accepted — in and outside of the country. So, what now?
Well, plenty of things! After all we haven’t bestowed power on our beloved Players so they would only enjoy its privileges and pleasantries. We have done it, because it’s an excellent setup for all sorts of intrigues, adventures and other events, where the Players will have to use primarily their brains and various (often non-combat) skills. For once.
Firstly, there is foreign politics. Our little state has to survive, and its enemies are many — especially if the new lords ascended to the throne only recently and in a slightly non-standard way. Even the closest allies usually have their price, for which they may be bought. Therefore, an environment is created to allow natural born party politicians to finally show off their talents: they can plot, conspire, coax, seduce, intimidate and haggle to their hearts’ content, all for the noble goal of expanding, or at least not losing land and influence. It’s not only about thwarting political competitors’ plans (and promoting one’s own), but also about trade agreements, economy policies, forcing one’s own ideology onto neighbouring states, and so on. Our Players’ hands will be full, and either they will stand up to the task, or their subjects will become food for crows and ravens. As a game master, you may also appreciate the fact that their presence at balls and great ceremonies is suddenly justified, and that they will no longer be just people from nowhere: they will be, in a way, among their own, and they will have their own motivations.
Secondly, there are internal issues. At the very beginning, the new rulers need to ensure acceptance by their subjects. If they inherited the throne the traditional way, this shouldn’t be a problem, but whenever it doesn’t apply, we need to take into account that our subordinates, or at least some of them, won’t be too happy with us at the top. While most common folk don’t give a damn about who their lord is, certain influential groups do, and they may often be capable of inciting others against the party. Therefore, appropriate and extensive measures must be taken to identify any sources of opposition before it spreads — and then appease any malcontents. The opposition may naturally be based on various groups and individuals, depending on your setting, but the most typical would be: local church structures (after all they are technically above any earthly power, and they are very influential), merchant guilds (who always compete with feudal lords, and who have an annoying tendency to have bigger military budgets than the state itself — as seen for example during early Renaissance in Italy), and your vassals (who will likely topple any sovereign if they hate them enough to join their forces). There are other power groups too, especially in a high fantasy setting — be it mages (these can be particularly nasty), fantastic racial minorities or even nature spirits (especially in Far Eastern settings).
Ways of dealing with such groups greatly depend on the setting and your own plots, but when looked at from a generalized point of view, there are two basic methods: giving them power or giving them money. Power means basically privileges, rights that would be exclusive to this group, for example bearing arms, collecting taxes, running religious ceremonies or brewing alcohol; whatever it is, it somehow translates to the group’s influence over the entire community. Privileges may come from two sources: another group or the state itself. Both are problematic: if you are giving away your own privilege to your subject, you dilute your power and make yourself even weaker than before, therefore forcing more concessions in the future; and if this privilege used to belong to someone else, you’re sure to piss them off big time. That’s why it’s much better to use money to ensure loyalty, as it generally doesn’t have political repercussions and is much cleaner, but also harder to do: it’s easy to give a privilege, but it’s not easy to have enough money to buy everyone. And this brings us to…
Thirdly, the economy. It is vital to ensure that our subjects do not bum around, but work for the common good! Fields must be tended, mines excavated, people properly taxed and so on, and it won’t just happen by itself. Naturally, this is a very complex problem, depending on your resources, technology, international trade and so on, but for now let’s concentrate on infrastructure: workshops, roads, harbours, all that. Infrastructure is as vital in real (or simulated) life as in strategy games you’ve probably played, since it multiplies your kingdom’s income (and therefore taxes), so it’s a good aspect to focus on during a campaign. The simple act of building a road can become a mini-campaign on its own, consisting of negotiations with the builder’s guild, fighting off bandits, buying the best stone and so on. Building is generally at least as enjoyable as destroying, so if your Players seem to enjoy a bit of a Sim City, let them!
Whatever the situation, one thing is certain: your Players don’t have enough money to do what they want. And this is where fun begins. Money can simply be borrowed from banks, but this puts the state in debt and diminishes its significance by empowering the merchant class, not to mention that the debt must be paid eventually. Therefore, your Players will sadly (for them, not you) have to use their wits. Their first source of income are their friends in high positions, whom they surely met during their earlier adventures and who may give them a hand, since having a king or baron indebted to you is extremely valuable; use them sparingly, but it’s a good way to help the party while also creating more connections between them and the outside world. Money can also be received from foreign powers, in return for some sort of a favour, like joining their cause; this needn’t be harmful to the state, though one must be always cautious to not become too dependent — as the hand that giveth, can easily taketh away. Furthermore, a powerful party may turn to the good old questing to raise money (especially in settings like the Middle-Earth, where killing dragons leads to treasure that can support entire civilizations). And finally, there is one of the most ancient and honoured ways of funding your empire: offensive war. Which brings us to…
Fourthly, there are means of violence. Without them, there is no state: the Players’ power will only extend to the next street corner, and their subjects will be limited to their horses and possibly a butler. An army is needed primarily for maintaining order and protection of borders from external aggression. If the country is small, then its armed forces will be miniature too, but it’s not a problem — what matters is if it can defend you from an aggressive neighbour or not; and armies of a hundred men, although they may seem bizarre today, used to be pretty normal. What matters is that they are loyal, well-fed and adequately armed (including horses and any logistics that would apply), and that they can react reasonably fast to most threats. Since many Players are more interested in war than other duties of a lord, let them have fun hiring people, appointing officers and making grand plans, which at some point will of course be tested by the cold reality — but you already know that, right?
Fifthly and finally, there are other duties that must be taken care of by our heroic lords, because of the simple fact that they are still heroes. Their social promotion has not changed this (we’re still assuming they got their seat of power while adventuring): by fantasy stereotypes, a wizard is still a wizard (or in this case perhaps a Witch-King), a barbarian is a barbarian, a priestess — a priestess, etc. They’re not only the same people as before, they also have the same goals, and ruling over a country is an excellent addition to their means of reaching these goals. Besides, it should be noted that their adventuring past never goes away; they still have the same friends and foes as before, although relations between them may change (for example, enemies may give up their vendetta against people who suddenly rose above their league, or move the conflict from a personal/criminal level to a political level). Whatever the circumstances, it is important to remember that what surrounds the characters is not a completely new reality, even if the Players themselves forget it for a while.
Well, Game Master, do you like this idea? I can assure you most Players like it a lot, since power is obviously a very potent motivation for most RPG characters (at least before they understand how much difficult work it entails). Of course it’s you who knows best what entertains your Players, therefore you should focus on aspects of ruling they are most interested in: some will thoroughly enjoy setting disputes and passing judgement on criminals, others will delve into making money, and others yet will envision an army worthy of Napoleon and show great determination in building and using it, for the glory of their land. Just make sure everyone gets their share and, well, may their reign last forever! Or at least until you find something else for them to do.