For many people, the Medieval code of chivalry is as much a part of the Middle Ages as dragons, swords and knights in shining armor. As a previous post on the RPG Athenaeum discusses, part of creating a setting for which players are willing to suspend disbelief involves presenting at least some of what players expect to see in the game; based on how familiar players are with the concept of chivalry, a dungeon master (DM) can help meet player expectations for his milieu by including chivalric orders of knights, even if such orders only exist as background detail.
What is chivalry?
Ask 10 historians for a definition of chivalry, and you’ll receive 10 different answers. For game purposes, chivalry can be loosely defined as a knight’s adherence to a set of moral, religious and military standards, across three basic elements:
Warfare. Combat was an inseperable part of knighthood, and the code of chivalry dictated how a knight was to behave in combat, such as prohibiting ‘dishonorable’ attacks from behind, capitalizing on unfair advantages and displaying cowardice in battle, in addition to showing mercy to foes that surrender.
Religion. Knighthood was also a religous calling. Accordingly, the church required that knights embody the Seven Heavenly Virtues of faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence, to adhere to all church teachings, and in some cases obey the directives of high-ranking church officials.
Courtesy. The code of chivalry also addressed the manner in which knights related to other people. It was imperative for knights to display honesty, to speak kindly and tactfully, to show respect to others and to strictly obey the surprisingly demanding rules of Medieval etiquette. Another aspect of knighthood involved the concept of courtly love, through which a knight could love and champion the honor of women without the carnal implications of more conventional romance.
Designing a knightly order for the D&D game
Working from a historical perception of chivalry, a DM can easily create knihgtly orders specific to his or her milieu. To do so, proceed through the following steps:
- Determine the goal(s) of the order. This can be as general as advancing the interests of a particular lord, government or temple, to as specific as guarding certain sites or destroying a specific creature type, such as undead.
- Establish criteria for admission. How does a candidate join the order? Are there any experience level, character class, religious affiliation or alignment requirements? Does a candidate need to prove worthiness for membership by completing a quest or surviving some sort of test?
- Define the order’s loyalties. Does the order serve another power, such as a temple or government? Does the order’s charter dictate who the knights will support if war breaks out in the region?
- Develop strictures by which the knights must behave. In addition to the mandates of chivalry, what other behavioral constraints apply to knights in the order? For example, the first edition (1e) of the Advanced D&D game placed restrictions on the amount of treasure a paladin could amass, and how many magic items a paladin could own. In the 1e supplement Unearthed Arcana, further strictures were placed on the types of armor and weapons that paladins and cavaliers could possess without loss of honor.
- Define penalties for “conduct unbecoming.” What happens when a knight fails to meet the order’s standards? What constitutes grounds for expulsion from the order?
- Sketch out its hierarchy. Who leads the order? Are there different ranks within the order, such as high officers and junior officers? How does a knight advance to a leadership position in the order?
A sample knightly order
In this writer’s fourth edition (4e) campaign, a prominent knightly order is The Fellguard. Working through the steps just outlines, the order develops as follows:
Primary goal: to guard known portals to the Abyss, Shadowfell and Outer Worlds against invasion, and to prevent the creation of other such portals.
Secondary goals: (1) to protect and avenge the helpless, (2) to uphold the rule of law, and (3) identify and destroy the enemies of the Temple of Bahamut.
Admission: Fighters and paladins may join the order as squires, who are typically selected from among the lay brethren and sponsored by at least one knight in good standing. Knighthood is attained through the completion of a quest that displays a member’s worthiness (a task presenting a challenge for a character of levels 8 to 10 usually suffices). Only paladins can attain ranks higher than knight.
Loyalties: The order swears allegiance to the Temple of Bahamut and the monarch of the kingdom. If the temple and king are at odds, the order is to side with the temple (although the king doesn’t know this).
Strictures: In addition to the mandates of chivalry, the knights obey the Seven Standing Edicts, which are:
- To always exemplify valor in battle. Cowardice in armed conflict results in immediate expulsion from the order. This punishment is quantified by the fact that a paladin may retreat with honor if outnumbered two-to-one in terms of level, i.e. a third level paladin may retreat from a foe of sixth level or higher without being branded a coward.
- To never leave helpless creatures in harm’s way.
- To embody temperance and restraint in consumption. This edict extends to both the quantity and delicacy of the paladin’s food and drink, as well as to opulence in clothing, lodgings and modes of travel. This is not to say that Knights of the Fellguard do not posess equipment of superior quality – they typically have the best mounts, arms and equipment available, so as to better complete their missions – but that these items are devoid of ornament.
- To donate one-tenth of all income; half of this money goes to the Temple of Bahamut, the other half to charities that ease the suffering of common folk.
- To support lawfully-appointed ruling authorities, and to bring lawbreakers to justice.
- To be vigilant for, and take action against, any activity opposed to the Temple of Bahamut.
- Never to never conceal one’s identity as a member of the order.
Penalties: These are determined and administered by a member one rank higher than the offender, as appointed by a member two ranks higher. Members ranked at the Council of Five and higher solve all differences through trial by combat.
The ranks of the Fellguard are sorted between the following ranks, listed in ascending order.
- Lay (or serving) Brethren: these folk carry out most of the menial labor involved with maintaining the order’s lands. Anyone hoping to enter the order begins at this rank, without exception.
- Pages: promising individuals are taken from the lay brethren and trained in court etiquette, religion, law, and history. Most pages are groomed for various manorial administrative posts through their training.
- Squires: pages who show an aptitude for combat are sometimes drafted by individual knights to be trained in the use of arms. Knights do not take on squires lightly, for the conduct of a squire affects the honor of his or her mentor. Many squires retain this servient role for their entire lives, while others are separated from their mentors after their martial and religious training is complete and assigned as temple guards. Only a handful become squires errant.
- Squires Errant: the knights have a responsibility to fill their ranks with only the finest warriors of the purest hearts. When a mentor believes that his or her squire has the martial and spiritual caliber to become a Knight of the Fellguard, the mentor promotes the squire to errant status. Squires errant are effectively released from their mentors’ service, but their conduct is still credited to or against their mentors’ honor. This crediting assures that knights only grant errant status to the most deserving squires. Some squires retain errant status for life, but most attempt to prove their worthiness for full knighthood by completing a quest.
- Knights: the deeds of those squires errant who complete a quest proving their faith, adherence to edicts, character, tenacity and courage are reviewed by the Council of Five, a group of senior knights. The council determines if a candidate can be knighted, or if another quest is necessary as proof.
- The Council of Five: these knights, selected by the Highlord, determine which squires errant are knighted. They also sit in judgment of knights charged with cowardice and edict violations, and determine any modifications to or additions of edicts. When a council member leaves office, the Highlord selects a replacement; when a Highlord leaves office, the assembled knights elect a replacement from this council.
- Lord of the Treasury: this knight, appointed by the Highlord, oversees the transfer of all funds through the order.
- Lord Seneschal: this knight, appointed by the Highlord, oversees the operation of all secular properties the order holds.
- Lord of the Temples: this knight, also appointed by the Highlord, administers the operation of the various shrines and temples the order maintains.
- Lord Marshal: This knight, appointed by the Highlord, commands the knights as an assembled military force on the field of battle.
- Highlord: this knight, chosen by vote of all knights from among the Council of Five, determines all policies, religious, secular, military and diplomatic, by which the knights must live.