Hail to the King?

Hello – my name is L.T., and I’ll be your Wednesday’s poster for the next few weeks. I’m going to be focusing primarily on things to consider while building a fantasy world, so if there’s a topic you’d like me to discuss, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I can do!

Hail to the King? What other systems of governance have we got to choose from?

Know what bugs me? That when most people think of fantasy, most people think of generic old England. Now, kings were common throughout history – but let’s look at systems of governance and we’ll see how to make your fantasy story a little bit more rounded. I can’t get into everything (anarchy, oligarchy) but I might touch on those subjects in a subsequent post.

What is Government?

For the sake of this post, we’re talking about a governing body that either controls or regulates a population of people – this can be an area or a people spread throughout several countries. Remember that various forms can coexist at once: a king might control a territory, a tribe might move over his border undetected, and the king might be heavily influenced by the priests, which could be localized or international. Also, understand that we are talking about governments for world-building purposes.

The easiest way for you to figure out what form works best for you is to study history and learn what various offices meant – some titles are roughly interchangeable for the culture (for example, a Nordic Jarl is synonymous with Chieftain) and you are entitled to take some liberties as this pertains to fantasy fiction, however keep in mind that your readers will become more easily confused as you take liberties (having a prince as a ruler is perfectly justifiable; most readers however know that Kings/Sultans/Emperors are the usual rulers and will wonder why the ruler isn’t a king). If you want to write about an empire – study several! Learn about the Ottoman, Roman, and Chinese Empires, and consider how they ruled, what laws of succession were, and how they managed several territories that had physical and cultural barriers.

Also for the sake of this article, we won’t be going into the ideology of puppet or shadow government. A Puppet-King, for example, would be placed on the throne of a territory by an outside body to control it; basically, the king rules by the consent of another governing body; a shadow government would be the unspoken entity that rules behind the scenes.

Various types of economic styles can also be employed within regimes – consider the use of communism, socialism, totalitarianism, and capitalism. You are not limited to real-world examples for your fiction, but you can use them as a stepping stone for consideration. While you’re at it, consider societal notions of adulthood, personhood, rights, and law. You are limited only by your imagination, but remember, that readers bring baggage with them when they read, so it’s usually a good idea to start with a framework they’re familiar with then expand it.

Tribes and Chieftains

Now, a tribe can consist technically of more then a hundred people – they can be nomads or stationary, and tribes can be of more then one group of people physically, but come together as one people. The Chief is typically the strongest warrior who has the most support – perhaps it was really his father’s father who was strong and the current guy has a lot of support, but he’s still the one in charge. Not all cultures have a might-makes-right attitude, but generally speaking, we associate chiefs as being the most powerful individual in that community.

Now, it’s all well and good to have the strongest guy in charge, but he might surround himself with powerful allies. This is what for the sake of this article I will call a council, which might consists of power members of that society or representatives. The chief makes the decisions, but he might be influenced by outside sources – he might be the physical strongest or command the most resources, but he can’t compete with three disagreeing chieftains.

Enter Alliances

Now, let us suppose we have two tribes who dislike each other, but they come across a third tribe and the first two decide to band together to beat up on the third – they now have to decide if they’re going to have two leaders or really be one if they go to war. This is where arranged marriages for high-born really come into play – for example, let’s assume that we have two chiefs who want to go to war against a common enemy – but they don’t trust the other chief 100% – they might agree to a marriage on amiable terms (our people will become one!) or, basically a swap of hostages (your kid marries my kid, and they come live with my people while we go to war; we’ll send the appropriate person your way). This is probably where the whole ‘rescue the princess’ mentality probably came from – if a woman was the sole heir to an otherwise destroyed house, her husband would essentially get to claim all her inheritance as his own, depending on the culture.

This is something I utilized heavily in Tower of Obsidian – the plot is set into motion when the duke orders one of his men-at-arms to marry his newly widowed adult daughter. He has younger children with a subsequent wife, the catch is his oldest son has down’s syndrome, another daughter, and a son of about 2 years of age. He suffers from epilepsy, which isn’t well-understood for its time. His concern was that if he were to die, there would be numerous people who would want his position of power – that if his older son was unfit to rule, that his younger one would be heavily influenced through regency and possibly wouldn’t make it to an age of autonomous rule. The marriage-alliance was to enforce that, that the duchy was secured – that if the younger son didn’t make it to the throne, the adult daughter would hopefully beget a male heir accordingly and she’d have the protection of the family her father appointed her. It gave power to the house of the duke’s choice to enforce rules of regency – thus ensuring proper succession. The novel hints that all parties wanted the youngest son of the duke to succeed him, but small children as leaders can be heavily influenced.

Basic Kingdoms

I like to look at kings like rulers of small cities and territories first, (I nickname them Hill Kings) but their territory might expand – a small village or farm might be in a disputed area that might change hands back and forth. As the ruler of that one area gets more territory that is allied to him, he becomes a more powerful player – why? Because more people to join his army if attacked, more taxes to make cities, and those territories might specialize in different raw resources. Now, if your kingdom starts getting big for one person to run, then it’s important that he allots duty – he can have officials running aspects of towns for him, but he might have territories where the local ruler doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with him.

Consider historical Ireland during the Viking Era – there were essentially a lot of territories ruled by kings, but they all (more or less) answered to one High King. As you looked at individual territories, you would have a break down in territory – a King might appoint a lesser noble as say, a governor of a city or territory, who answers to him.

This is where titles start to matter for your nobility – now, you all probably have an idea what a knight is, but how many of us know the different between a Count and a Marquis? The Marquis ranks higher, but usually because his land would be protecting a border – his was a military designation.

Another note I’ll make here is the use of anglicized versions of titles – I’ll be the first one to admit that in Tower of Obsidian, I probably should have been using a different title than duke, but because I was writing for a primarily English audience, the concept of having lesser kings wouldn’t be easy to accept and, as none of my main characters were high nobility, it was easiest to establish that Mahon wasn’t as powerful as some of his peerage. My main advice here, is to be consistent in whatever methodology you utilize in your novels.


In a nutshell, an Empire is where a central country claims control over territories that have some sort of noted variation from the original territory – this could be ethnic, religious, lingual – be creative! Usually when we think of Empires, we think of one kingdom conquering another established territory. Usually, that conquered nation is still allowed to exist under its old title somewhat. The one who is in charge of this Empire, naturally, is called the Emperor or Empress. The only living example of a contemporary title-bearing Emperor would be the Japanese Emperor. One could argue that the Pope is ruler of the Catholic Empire.

An Empire in some senses could be an international body that all adhere to a given governing body. So now you’re probably thinking to yourself – but, what about your Irish example where you had numerous Kings all submitting to a High King? Isn’t that like an Empire? In a way, yes it would be – but for the Irish example, it was in a relatively small geographic area and they were considered more or less to be of one people (despite the Norse occupations in say, Dublin and Watergate…) but as you can see, the idea of an Empire is now very subjective as to who defines what as a citizen of one nation or another.


Typically, a successor is the oldest male, usually a son or a brother of the King, is thought to rule by divine right in many instances – however, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes in Chinese history, the Emperor named his heir by placing his name on a scroll and this was only revealed when he died – if he had numerous potential heirs by many mothers, it would do none of them any good to have their father whacked off and have their brother assume the office. Considering any child of the emperor was entitled to the throne, a commoner, who would be a concubine, could be elevated to the Emperor’s mother and her title would be effectively Dowager Empress, and she would have to be treated with respect by the Emperor’s wife, who was a high-born princess.

Father-to-oldest-son succession is probably your easiest method of succession, or a succession where the next-most-powerful individual succeeds if bloodline is not considered. There are cultures that have female inheritance, or, if the heir had little support or was unpopular, other potential claimants to the throne would arise. Wars have been fought over succession. Your character could be the grandson of the King through his mother, and he has an older male cousin who thinks he’s more entitled to the throne. Think back to this tribal alliance – if this cousin has the church backing him and a marriage alliance that gives him a powerful army, this could spell trouble for the rightful heir.

Theocracy, Divine Right

I won’t go into this too much – there are cultures to this day that are effective theocracies, however the ruler is not typically a priest to this day, instead they are a separate body who influences the ruler. This was not always the case; consider that that at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church had their own armies and could try citizens of various countries in Rome for crimes against the church. For a variety of reasons, King Henry VIII took control, and became head of the Church of England, and effectively took the power Rome had over his citizens for himself.

Divine right to rule was usually a theocratic notion of either an individual being elevated to godhood to assume a position of power (Ceaser, Pharoah) or that it was by the will of God or the gods that the individual be born to rule, and it was wrong to overthrow even a tyrant. This is often the case where you have a ‘just’ noble continuing to serve a corrupt king – he knows the king is evil, but he considers it wrong to act against the authority who put him on the throne.

Self-Rule: Republic vs. Democracy

 Now, unless you’re heavy into politics, you’re probably thinking they’re one and the same, and you’re close. Democracy is considered to be born in Greece, but I think that we had vestiges of democracy in tribal settings – basically, you’d have a council of people, but even if all they did was speak their mind to the chief who had ultimate say, I think most chiefs would probably want to understand what most of his powerful allies had to say – if only 2/10 of his supporters wanted to go to war, the chief would probably decide not to go unless he’s able to convince them otherwise.

A democracy means ‘every man has a say’ – this is in smaller settings, but when there grows to be a lot of people, you suddenly can’t have everyone having their say – there’s too many people. The idea of electing officials into positions to speak for you is, essentially, a republic. Don’t get confused with the idea of American Politics of Democrats vs. Republicans – that’s ideology and I’m trying to avoid that in this post. So if you’re working on a small scale, a democracy might be fine. If you want to have a more complicated form of politics – say, a country ruled by individuals voted into power, you’re going with a republic.

Now, you can still be creative here – you can have majority rules, or elect individuals to seats in a legislative body, and the party that gets the most seats forms the government. You can only let certain people vote and have rights. You are limited by your imagination – early democracies and republics were not all-inclusive, so keep in mind when you’re developing your early republics.

President vs. Prime Ministers

In a nutshell, a president is the leader of an organization. That’s why you can be school president, and it’s not the same thing as president of a country. A Prime Minister is usually the head of a cabinet, which is usually assembled by a ruling party. Now, a cabinet can be what you’d like. You can have a minister of education, finance, war, whatever your culture would consider important. Most countries have a single unified leader, but some, like Switzerland, do not, instead having the position split into numerous ones. For me, president sounds very modern, so I would probably opt for minister or another invented title.

Smaller scale: Mayors, Provinces, Etc.

Now that you’ve established the big picture, think about your local one – you can have a kingdom, your character lives in a town ruled by a duke and his town is ruled by a governor for that duke. The term mayor is usually the one for the leader or person in charge of an individual town or city, but you can use titles in accordance to what your setting demands.

Consider how laws work in various territories – if they would be enforced on a federal, territorial, or municipal level, and who makes those laws. You can have a country that has different laws in different territories, and it would be effectively be like having different bi-laws in different towns.

So, that’s basically it, without going into military coups and banana republics, as you can see, once you have a loose framework, there’s a lot of room for you to interpret, corrupt, and develop a variety of different ways for your kings not only to rule, but interact with other country’s leaders – giving you the freedom to have your royals to go out and have adventure and the framework for the country to keep running itself while he’s busy. There is technically more to this, but this blog post is getting rather long.

I’m going to close with few links for you to look up.

The Magna Carta


Mercantile System

Mandate of Heaven

Constitutional Monarchy 



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2 responses to “Hail to the King?

  1. Love the info. One of the most interesting non-conforming cultures is the PIcts who were likely matriarchal in succession with the woman’s son inheriting. They’re a little known race with a lost language that merged with the Scots. Possibly Celtic orgins but myths told of strange men (possibly from Thrace) who journeyed to Ireland, took Irish wives with the understanding that succession would be matriarchal, then settled in Scotland. Interestingly, as more is becoming known about the Thracians who lived near the Black Sea, similarities are evident between the Picts of Scotland and the Thracians. Did I mention that both have an unusual occurence of red hair? R

  2. Didn’t. Know about the red hair – sadly, all I really know about Thrace is from watching Spartacus.

    I did know that the Picts had female leaders, though. I did quite a bit of research on Bouttica for my research for ToO.

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