Monday, June 25, 2012

The Real Power Behind The Throne

Over the weekend I took my niece to see Brave. A good movie all around, and totally awesome if only for its portrayal of women. It is really awesome to see a movie, especially a major motion picture, with strong role models for women/girls to look up to that's not overly insulting to men. That aside though, the movie also got me thinking about something else. Something that I wonder how many GMs actually keep in mind when they're setting up their fantasy game. That thing? Well, where does the real power behind the throne lie?

Day To Day vs. The Big Stuff
The key to this argument comes down to the breakdown of power many households, and kingdoms, have. Generally speaking the big figurehead is not the person who is doing the day to day running. Oh sure, maybe they're busy every day with something or other, but odds are it is someone else's job to handle the day to day affairs. Afterall, how much can the King do if he has to keep all the servants in line, right? This is where the breakdown in the power of the throne comes down.

On the one hand you have the King him/herself. They are the ones who officially hold the power. The burden of ruling the kingdom, or whatever, is completely on them. On the other, you have whomever handles the day to day running of the kingdom and castle. This is the person who makes sure that everything is handled so that the king can do his/her job.  So, which one holds the real power?

The Case of Grima Wormtongue
I chose Grima Wormtongue as the example because he is one of the most famous. An advisor to the throne, someone whose job is to help with the running of the kingdom, but also whispering secrets into the king's ear and through them controlling him. Jafar in Aladdin is another character like this. In many movies, the king's wife - for good or ill - is also often shown to be this person. All of the portrayals I'm talking about here are villainous. Not that the character necessarily has to be villainous, but this is one of the roles for the person behind the power.

This is one of the more traditional ways to show this role. The person is manipulative and often using the king/throne's power to further their own goals; to make themselves feel big and important as it were. Along with being manipulative, they are also often cowardly. Then again, fiction loves to make the manipulative people cowards. It gives the hero a way to power through even if the person should be able to dance mental circles around them.

The Other Way
The other way of doing this role is the good and loyal steward/wife. This role is much less often depicted because the person is doing their duty and  not making a huge deal about it. They're not manipulating the throne, so the hero rarely has to deal with them. Instead, they quietly go about their duty and let the King/Throne make the big decision of whether they'll help the heroes or not.

The Point Of This
The point of this post, and what Brave got me thinking about, is how often we forget about that good steward. Sure, we have all the villainous/manipulative ones down, but the good ones we rarely see. They can be interesting and poignant people to the story as well. We just need to let them. These people are also often capable of providing a lot of aid even when the throne can not do so fully. You need the kingdom to ride to war with you, but they can't do it. That doesn't mean you can't get access to some of the coffers and armaments if your story moved the steward, but wasn't enough for the throne. So, maybe next time your PCs roll up on a castle and need to ask the King for a favor. Maybe they'll run into an advisor or steward who actually runs all the day to day affairs for the kingdom. Maybe it won't be a manipulative sod. Maybe, just maybe, you can make them into one of the more interesting characters/NPCs in your game simply by virtue of all the power they wield, yet the loyalty and honor to not abuse it.

I know it is something I'm going to be working on.


  1. A couple of points on this one, both from experience.

    Firstly, I have in the past used the 'good steward' as the middle-man between the players and their boss. Not always a King, or even a lord, but someone who handles logistics and other such concerns. Without exception, the players have distrusted this person. No matter how helpful and open they are made out to be, risking their careers - and sometimes lives - to help the players out, they're seen as having ulterior motives and are secretly plotted against by the players.

    Don't get me wrong, this has lead to some stupendous roleplaying and a whole load of fun on both sides of the GM screen, but it seems so fixed in players' minds that any one who even has a whiff of 'grand Vizier' about them is out to get them.

    secondly, for anyone running a fantasy game a great place to look for inspiration as to what senior advisers can do and get away with can't do much worse that British royal history, covering the Dark ages to the Tudors. My own personal favourites are the Plantagenet dynasty, but anything from that era will provide a whole host of ideas.

  2. Players do tend to mistrust this role, if only because of how they are normally portrayed. Glad to see you stuck with it, even when the players were expecting betrayal at every turn. Also, thanks for the information on where to look for more on this. Saves me some research time. :D

  3. This article has been really helpful. Its given me a number of ideas for a NPCs that I have been struggling with fleshing out.

    Also, thanks shortymonster for tips on where to look for more ideas.

  4. Glad to hear we could help, John. Good luck with your game. :)

  5. Some more ideas, in no particular order:

    Sometimes there's more than one such power. usually somewhere between 2 and 5. A council of advisors with their own agendas would be a great addition to a political game.

    Sometimes multiple advisors handle different realms. The general, the seneschal and the archbishop walk into a bar.

    Specifically on the role of women as the power behind the throne - This is a good way to have two people with complementary skills.

    In some cases I can see the party petitioning the King and his senschal. When in reality the Queen and the senechal's wife run the country.

  6. On your last point Philo, that can be very fun when the PCs don't realize that and are rude to the Queen and Senechal's wife. :)

  7. A SUPERB example of the "Council of Advisors" concept is the Game of Thrones series, especially the HBO version. In season 1 you cna see how all the differing personalities conflict and everyone has their own agenda, and in Season 2 you can see one person (Tyrion) playing many of those elements against each other. Also, boobies. Which are almost never a bad thing.