Societies have power structures. There is usually a top and a bottom to this power structure, but all of this power and legitimacy ultimately flows from the people below them. (At least until we start talking about robot armies.)
A prince is never going to be crowned without the support of the mob/aristocracy/army/pope, and those people are never going to support that prince unless they think that the prince can help them in some way.
Essentially, political power is never free. It exists only within the boundaries set by the people who put you into power. If you start to go against their interests, those same people will remove you. Even a king has constituents, of a sort.
Writing Interesting Fantasy Social Structures
1. It should be interesting. If it's boring, don't spend time writing it, much less running it.
However, even a generic kingship can be interesting (knights! political marriages! inheritance!) and those are the parts you should focus on.
2. It should be semi-plausible. This depends on how gonzo/historical you game is, but spare a thought for "realism" when you're describing how the kingdom is ruled by an ordinary chicken.
3. The players should be able to affect it. Tabletops are simply more fun when the players can interact with what is presented.
There should be methods for the players to incorporate themselves into the power structure, or at least to break a few teapots.
Ideally, the disruption should be a natural conclusion of the governmental structure itself. Good example: becoming a baron by finding the sacred chicken among a flock of thousands. Less unique example: becoming a baron by assassinating the old baron.
Concubocracry: The Nothic Empire
|from the Wonder Woman movie|
Originally, the Empire was ruled by an emperor who possessed ultimate authority in wartime, but was limited in all other areas by his senate, who held veto power over many of his actions.
During the war against the frost giants and their client cities, the entire senate was killed. (Many say that the Emperor allowed it to happen, or possibly even did it himself.)
Because the emperor requires a senate to have any authority, the emperor appointed an emergency senate: his entire harem.
Precedent holds strong sway in Noth, and that action codified itself. Now, the harem is
the senate, and the senate is
the harem. The two are interchangable.
Senators are elected by different subsections of the population. Appointment is for 10 years, or until death. The only people who are eligible to run as senators are those born of noble families (or at least adopted).
In actuality, senators are usually just representatives of their families, and act in their family's own interests (but not always).
A senatrix can also be appointed by the emperor at his discretion, up to a certain limit. Many defenders of this system argue that this is a superior method--if the emperor wants to fuck someone, then he also has to listen to them.
Additionally, since the emperor is required to make regular visits to the harem (in order to ensure a good supply of imperial offspring), the emperor and the senate have regular opportunities to interact. And the emperor has an additional motivator not to antagonize his harem--they bear his children, and are entirely responsible for the health and education of those resultant children for the first four years of their life. In a semi-medieval world where childhood mortality is common and smothering is easy, infanticide serves as another check and balance.
The senate is officiated by the infanta
, who is elected from among the daughters of the previous emperor.
The empress has no governmental power, unless her husband dies. She is an understudy.
The peaceful, crumbling city of Mondaloa
is ruled by the dead. Not the undead, who are abominations in the eyes of Mondaloa (the deity that shares his name with the city), but the actual dead.
Seven ancient families rule the city, and each family has a Speaker for the Dead, who speaks on behalf of their honored ancestors. Each speaker has a rank. Their ranks are decided like this.
Each speaker must be buried alive and then resuscitated. The people who bury the priest must be different than the people who dig him up. Rank is decided by how high up the mountain you were buried.
In practice, the priest will walk up the mountain with his diggers, along with a specialized coffin and numerous mechanisms to survive the ordeal, both magical and mundane. Once they have climbed as high as they dare, they dig a hole, bury the priest, and run back to Mondaloa.
The team of exhumers waits for their arrival, and then sets out as soon as the last digger returns, like a baton pass. The go to the point specified, and exhume their brother. If they are swift, the city has a new speaker for the dead. If they are too slow, the honored dead gain another member, and a small cairn is built.
In cases of real deadlock, the actual dead are summoned to settle things. This is generally unpleasant for everyone involved, and the speakers will try to avoid this.
It turns out that when actual ancestors are consulted, they tend to be weirdly conservative about certain things, weirdly uncaring about certain modern concerns, and racist along lines that aren't generally recognized anymore. They are also fairly pissed off at being brought back.
The city sends out sanctified necromancers, who seek to coax the restless dead back into their graves. After all, that skeleton is someone's beloved grandmother, and deserves to be treated as such.
The horse lords of the Fangolian plains decide their leadership through a race. Since the race crosses the territories of all of the clans, and since there are essentially no rules, clans can "vote" against enemy clans by trying to kill them.
These races don't happen often, since the horse clans are fiercely independent, and rarely see the need to unify against anything less than an existential threat. And when they do seek to unify, they usually already have one or two candidates that they support, and so most clans don't even enter the race out of politeness.
One caveat is that it is the horse that is racing, not the rider. As long as the horse crosses the finish line, alive or dead, that clan is the winner. The riders usually wear masks to emphasize their own unimportance relative to their clan's horse.
All positions in government, from tax collector up to king, must be held by a married couple. The reasoning behind this is that anyone who is unable to navigate a marriage is certainly unable to navigate a political office.
If one of the two people die, or if they divorce, they become ineligible for the position and immediately retire.
Infidelity also causes a divorce, even if both members of the married couple wish to remain married. However, infidelity has a very specific definition in Basharna, and there is always the matter of proof.
Shangrilore has one king, three dukes, and eleven barons. The crowns can be inherited, but the noblest way to obtain a crown is to steal it.
Only a duke can steal the crown from the king, and so become the new king. Likewise, only a baron can steal the crown from a duke. Anyone can steal from a baron, as long as they first undergo a ritual purification at a local church, first.
Violence is not permitted. Spilt blood stains the transfer, and a murder invalidates it. A thief who kills someone on a botched attempt is a common criminal, nothing more.
The wearers of the crowns must engage in certain pilgrimages across Abasinia, and to Casmir, where they perform certain duties, such as blessing the fishing fleet and receiving blessings from the vestal virgins. All of this travel requires them to wear the crown, and allows for many opportunities for thievery to occur.
Ranking among the dukes and the barons in determined by the method in which the crown was stolen. Much more acclaim is given to those who obtained their crowns through bravery and brilliance.
When a crown is stolen, you must leave your own crown behind as proof.
Prestige is also gained by stealing things from your rivals. The more outrageous the theft, the better. Stealing things from people who can't afford it is considered a sin, as is the theft of money, gold, or jewels (unless you compensate the victim the dollar value of the item immediately). In fact, things that are stolen are often immediately returned, usually in a respectful and/or cheerful manner.
An example of a prestigious theft would be to steal your rival's distinctive clothing, alter their calendar, and then show up to their appointments while prancing around and mocking them, while your rival shows up an hour late for all of their appointments. Classic.
Geriatrocy: Elvish Cities
Elvish cities are often pure democracies, decided by a straightforward vote. Each person's vote is proportionate to their age, so an 80-year-old man casts twice as many votes as a 40-year-old.
Elves pride themselves on their wisdom and fairness, and justify this rule by saying that age is wiser than youth, and so the extra voting power is deserved. In practice, this usually just means that younger elves get little representation, to say nothing of the few humans who sometimes live in elven enclaves ("half-elves
Elections follow a rolling total, with votes coming in until a clear victor is determined. This process takes as long as it must, and sometimes it takes years for wandering elves to return home and cast the deciding vote. Sometimes children and babies are dragged to the ballot boxes when a vote is especially close. And of course, sometimes the vote changes as people's age's change or certain voting members die. (Consider an 80-year-old opposed by two 40-year-olds--the younger cohort will have a distinct advantage next year.)
Dead (and undead) are not allowed to vote. Resurrected elves are allowed to vote, and vote at their full (calendar-calculated) age. And in fact, sometimes especially ancient elves will commit suicide in order to leave some mileage on their bodies, so they can be resurrected at a later point in order to influence future politics. (You cannot be resurrected if you die from old age.)
Elves from the temporal elven kingdoms
at the end of time are from a different class of elf, and do not mix with the "low elves" of Centerra, which simplifies matters for the elves who are not stuck with the task of calculating the age of elves who have looped through the timeline so many times that they are several times older than the universe.
Lottery: Great Zyro, Worthless Zyro, Ziga, and Manamar
Exactly like what it sounds like. Everyone's name is put into a hat, and then a name is drawn for every single position available.
This is includes the expected governmental positions such as master of ships and high priest, but it also includes unexpected roles such as village idiot and bandit.
Bear in mind that this madness only encapsulates the Zyroleans who live on land, who are already considered to be mad. All proper Zyroleans live aboard their ships, and follow proper naval laws.
Whenever one of the high mages dies, his surviving family picks his successor, who must be from outside of the family.
Of course this leads to some biased judging, since the departing family seeks to install a high mage who is sympathetic to their goals, but everyone likes to pretend that the judging is unbaised. Because of this, flagrant partisanship leads to angry mobs and a legitimacy struggle.
The successorship competitions are always public, and they are always spectacular affairs, usually a blend of scholarship, showmanship, and raw magical power.
They also tend to be crowd-pleasers. A popular display might be a parade of animals made of cake, who march through the city until they are eaten by the populace.
Each of the high mage's rules over one of the city's towers, and each tower has a different focus, from warfare to history. The performance is expected to conform to the theme.
Some towers are more stable than others, with the position of high mage being traded back and forth between two or three families for centuries, while other towers are more chaotic.
Government in Exile: the Anti-Pope
A generation ago, a long-festering schism within the Church finally spilled over.
The Church was split between the conservative Orthodox faction that wished for the Church structure to remain as it was, and the Reform faction that believed that the Church had become too corrupt and worldly, and would be better if it fragmented into smaller, decentralized churches. It's opponents simply said that the Reformers were seeking to seize power for themselves, and had no moral motivation.
Both sides accused the other of being illegitimate, and both appointed their own Pope.
With strong support from allies in Noth, the Orthodox faction eventually triumphed over the Reformers. Most recanted. A few were tried as heretics and killed. And some fled the city of Kaladon and the Church that they saw as corrupt.
The who became labeled as the False Pope, or Anti-Pope, was a cardinal named Odrial. He was immensely popular in the north, which is where he fled.
He is believed to be hiding out somewhere in Guilder or Gafferdy, still preaching his doctrine in secret masses. He is the most dangerous heretic in the world, and is known to have a small circle of anti-priests and anti-paladins.
Map of Centerra
Here's an updated one, in case anyone is interested where these places are located relative to each other.