Reality Shift Part 3 – Living to Serve

Table of Contents

KnightsIn Reality Shift Part 1, I introduced the RS concept which asks: “what would our D&D worlds be like if we dropped the idea that the game rules are a model of reality and instead adopt them as the actual reality of this imaginary world?”  Reality Shift Part 2 gave the first answer to that, showing how the D&D class system would lead to a general social class system based on the power wielded by individuals.  This class system is divided into four tiers: Rulers, Thanes, Tradesmen and Peasants.  This post will focus on the relationship between the Rulers and their Thanes.

Living to Serve

Feudal knights and samurai were some of the most powerful warriors in the history of our world and both lived by codes that featured serious injunctions against disloyalty to one’s lord and master.  Today’s militaries have similar ethics of national loyalty and obedient service.  These sorts of loyalty ethics exist because of the significant investment required to make such a warrior so dominant: it doesn’t make much sense for a government to outfit someone with the best equipment and training available if it has any doubt about that individual’s willingness to use them in its service. In the D&D universe, this effect would be greatly magnified.  The investment required to outfit and maintain a single key thane could eat the majority of a ruler’s budget: training, magical items, healing, even resurrection might be needed to maximize the individual’s usefulness.

Sun Tzu tells us that, “In war, numbers alone confer no advantage.”  That’s even more true in a world in which a single individual can, through combat experience, gain sufficient power to overcome dozens of otherwise similar men on the battlefield.  This begs the question: will a ruler find more success by maintaining a large force of mostly tradesman or even peasant warriors, or by concentrating his investment in a few very powerful individuals?

Compare two rulers:

–          Torgath the Crude cultivates a large and fanatical following of devoted minions.  His multitudinous horde sweeps over the plains to attack any foe and eat all of his food.  Because he has so many followers, Torgath doesn’t mind if a few are killed here and there or if their equipment and training aren’t the best.  He may invest in a little bit of healing magic here and there for morale purposes, but he certainly won’t bother getting these 1-hitpoint wonders raised from the dead when they’re inevitably mowed down.

–          Shedrach the Wise leads a relatively small contingent of dedicated professionals.  Not only does he seek to avoid throwing these few followers away, he also seeks to develop them by deliberately sending them on challenging but doable errands that tend, more often than not, to result in no casualties and an increase in experience level.  To preserve these people (and because magic weapons and equipment don’t hinder advancement), he’ll arm his retinue with the best equipment and training he can get his hands on.  If one of Shedrach’s precious human resources is hurt or even killed, he’ll spare little expense to get them healed or even raised from the dead to continue fighting and, much more importantly, gaining experience.

If these two rulers come to war with one another, we can imagine that even if the numbers of their forces differ by several orders of magnitude, if Shedrach’s talent development system is at all far along, the result will be a very busy day for Torgath’s grave diggers.  Even if Shedrach loses, his surviving Thane followers gain power and experience and his willingness to support them builds their loyalty.

There would certainly be plenty of rulers who adopt Torgath’s love-is-numbers approach, but over time, more and more Shedrach’s would find success in variations of the talent development model.  Kenneth Waltz, one of the preeminent scholars of international politics, tells us that states tend to be functionally similar because, like firms in a free market, the ones that adhere to best practices tend to survive.  In a reality shifted campaign, we assume that magic and character classes aren’t a recent addition to the world, so there would be a long and celebrated history of small groups trouncing large ones, of rulers succeeding with the talent development model, and failing with the mass attack model.

This would tend to entrench these values culturally, so that most rulers would see the approach as “the way” to do things.  A complex web of obligations, responsibilities would arise, in which hirelings would come to expect their bosses to take good care of them and rulers would expect serious loyalty from their staffs.  The level of training and equipment rulers offer their households will depend on their resources, level of development and the supply of vendors (trainers, magic item makers, healers, etc), but most will have a core contingent of thanes who get the most support and responsibility.  Tradesman warriors will still have value for day-to-day tasks and supporting roles, and some rulers may even experiment with a horde of minions, but educated and/or clever rulers will rarely pass up the opportunity inherent in farming a good crop of thanes.

From the thanes’ perspective, service makes sense, too.  Because resurrection is a real possibility for thanes, especially senior ones who work for powerful rulers, combat becomes significantly less risky.  A thane working for a good ruler could have a very rewarding life, even if he is frequently called upon to do battle with his lord’s enemies.  Even thanes that are capable of easily overpowering their lords will often be loath to do so – in part due to the social and political legitimacy of the ruler class, in part due to natural risk aversion, but also due to the socializing pressure of membership in the thane class.  Because of its strong utility, the thane class’ loyalty would have been cultivated over dozens of generations, giving it the power of tradition and legend.

Thus, the bond of service will be quite strong, with thanes dependent on their rulers for equipment and healing; and rulers dependent on their thanes for protection and effective action.

In such a world, PCs will be distinctive not because they have abilities, but because they’re generally going to be freelancers – like knights errant or ronin – and be willing to accept greater risks than the employed NPCs they encounter.  They’ll die a lot more, but they’ll also reap greater awards they’re less likely to have to share with anyone.  In such a world, how do you think the rulers and thanes might tend to react to freelancers?  Would they see them as valuable temporary assistants, brave heroes, or no-account vagabonds, unworthy of trust or respect?

4 thoughts on “Reality Shift Part 3 – Living to Serve”

  1. This is a good point of view. I’ll have to remember this next time I run. It could even be the focus of an adventure or campaign if done right.


  2. Very good. I really plan on useing this if i ever get to DM. My current DM skipped out on me and hasn’t been online for several days now. Starting to tick me off and I’ve unfortunatly been taking it out on my townsfolk. I now feel very sad and hope my vassals aren’t too mad…[angry shouting]… looks like I was wrong. I have a mob to quarrel with. I’ll return whaen I can.

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