Avoiding the Headsman's Axe

Most D&D games take place in a pseudo-medieval setting with knights, castles, and nobility. Many campaigns treat these elements as backdrop or simple atmosphere. For the most part, your typical D&D adventurer doesn’t bow or show respect to his social betters under any circumstance – he is just as brazen, blunt, and conversational with the local baker as he is with the king of the realm.

Although the Ashen Legacy campaign is not entirely focused on the realities of the feudal setting, these concepts are important and will come into play. When your character appears before the Duke of Anderland or, heaven forbid, the Emperor of Maldar, he/she would do well to observe proper etiquette. The people of Anderland and the nearby Empire of Maldar pay attention to the rules of social etiquette. Failure to do otherwise typically results in fines, imprisonment, or worse punishments.

The best way to approach all this is to view it as a role-playing challenge, not a limitation on how you play your character. Sure, you’ve played the devil-may-care, wandering adventurer plenty of times. Now comes the chance to try something different, to role-play a character from a slightly different world. A lot of fun and dramatic tension can grow out of good role-playing situations where your first instinct might be to speak your mind (or draw your sword!).

There are just a few simple rules of social etiquette to observe. As in all things, there are ways to bend the rules and cheat. There are ways to say one thing and yet mean something entirely different (another role-playing challenge!). The most important rules include:

Show respect in the presence of a nobleman: Very few people ever get to truly speak their mind in the presence of a nobleman, especially one as powerful as the Duke. These individuals are accustomed to receiving respect, and they become dangerous when they perceive insult or insufficient homage. Arguing with or yelling at a nobleman (especially someone as powerful as the Duke) is a quick way to banishment, imprisonment, or worse.

You would do well to remember that most nobles are mercurial, quick to anger, quick to take offense, and easily offended. They do not take well to correction, argument, or disagreement from those they view as their social inferiors. As a result, most servants and commoners have learned the fine art of “agreeable disagreement.” These folk say one thing, but quite obviously mean something else. In most cases, nobles overlook (or more often, simply do not notice) sarcasm, backhanded compliments, and so forth.

A few nobles have been known to listen to other ideas and viewpoints, even from their social lessers. Such nobles are rare and should be cherished for their open-mindedness. Never, however, presume too much, even with the kindest and most reasonable nobles.

Never draw a weapon in the presence of a nobleman: Doing so is a quick way to arrest and execution. Drawing a weapon in the company of a nobleman is typically viewed as hostile intent (this does not, of course, count when a nobleman’s guard draws his weapon to protect his charge, or similar situations). Threatening a nobleman is always rewarded with arrest and swift execution.

Never use magic in the presence of a nobleman: Magic use in front of a nobleman is a bad idea; after all, many magic spells are just as dangerous (and often more so) than weapons of wood or steel. Nobles understand swords and clubs; they do not understand – and thus often fear – magic. Even the simplest, most harmless spell can be misconstrued as dark, vile sorcery by a frightened nobleman. Wizards and other arcane casters especially must take great care in when and how they use their talents. Clerics and other divine casters have some greater leeway, but even so they must be cautious and conservative in their use of the arts.

Avoid magic use in public whenever possible: Nobles do not understand, and rarely appreciate, magic in any form. Whereas nobles treat magic with caution and uncertainty, most common folk view magic with fear, superstition, and suspicion. This reaction is especially true with users of arcane magic; commoners are somewhat more accepting of magic when it comes from a cleric or other person of faith. Wizards, sorcerers, and other arcane casters are frequently viewed as dangerous and unpredictable. Casting magic in the presence of the public is a risky move, with the results often difficult to predict. When commoners get upset, the nobles protecting them tend to get upset as well, with inevitable results.

Your life is not necessarily yours: This is probably one of the hardest concepts for most D&D players to accept or role-play. Your character may possess impressive skills, weapons, abilities, and powers beyond those of ordinary men. Your character may well have slain orcs, defeat a demon, and destroyed evil artifacts. Despite your accomplishments, you remain a subject of the ruling powers.

What does this mean? In practical terms, you are expected to follow local laws. If you break a law, even with good intent or pure purpose, you are liable to suffer the consequences. If you steal bread to give to a starving street urchin, the law cares nothing for your intentions. You will, if caught, suffer the punishment due any thief. If you kill a nobleman, even in self-defense, your life may well be forfeit – regardless of the reality of the situation.

Put another way, medieval laws are harsh, dogmatic, and often cruel. They have little or no leeway for your alignment or compassion. If you break a law and are caught, you will be punished. As for leniency from those in charge, don’t count on it.

Again, do not view this as an obstacle to the fun – consider this a role-playing challenge. Your character may still knowingly break the law, regardless of the potential punishments. Doing so elevates a character’s deeds and heroism all the more.

The life of every subject in the realm belongs to the Duke. Because the Duchy of Anderland is a vassal state to the Empire of Maldar, the ultimate true authority in the land lies with the Emperor. If he wants to kill a citizen, it is his right to do so without concern for actual laws, justice, morality, or fairness. Although the Duke of Anderland is known to be wise and just, the Emperor of Maldar is none of those things. Your best bet is to never run afoul of imperial justice!

Justice is harsh and often brutal: Stealing is an enormous crime in the eyes of the public and the government. Thieves (when caught) usually lose eyes, fingers, or other body parts as a first-time punishment. Murderers, rapists, and those speaking against the crown almost always suffer execution for their crimes. Jail time is rare – there are no prisons in the Duchy, and the notion of imprisonment for punishment is seldom used. When you think of criminal punishment, think in terms of permanent or long-term consequences. If you are going to risk breaking the law, make sure you know what you are risking.

Honor and reputation are currency: To a nobleman, a knight, or any important individual, his/her honor and reputation are worth more than gold or jewels. Threatening a person’s honor or reputation is viewed in the same light as stealing from them – a person’s reputation is often the basis for his/her livelihood. This is especially true amongst the nobility; they do not react well to insults or offenses from their equals, let alone their social inferiors. If you insult a nobleman, there may well be consequences. In these dark times, some people will kill to maintain their honor. On the upside, this tends to keep most people relatively polite and diplomatic, especially when dealing with their social betters. On the downside, however, an ill-time or inappropriate comment can easily be misconstrued or taken out of context. Be cautious when you are about to say exactly what is on your mind, especially when dealing with the nobility.

Avoiding the Headsman's Axe

Stormfell MarkDMHart