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Random Noble Houses

Backgrounds of the rich and famous…

Work on an upcoming fantasy setting has me thinking about nobles. There are a few noble houses I want to flesh out, and since I’m on an Inspiration Pad Pro kick, I thought a set of carefully crafted random tables was in order.

I’ve incorporated a few assumptions into these tables (which is code for “I reduced the scope so I could meet my deadline”). Specifically, these tables assume a quasi-feudal environment, so they may require some adjustment for your campaign. That said, here’s the basis I’m working from:

  • Nobles are landowning aristocracy and direct vassals to the king
  • The “King” is whoever runs the country, probably in an “absolute rule” sort of way
  • Nobles have their own vassals, to which they parcel out their land
  • Consequently, nobles represent the only possible check against the king’s power

The tables below suggest a noble house’s background, from which you can glean its role in the campaign. You’ll still need to fill in some details of your own as (and when) you need them (e.g., house names and details about prominent members). You’ll also do well to come up with a coat of arms for each house—the campaign detail is worth the effort, and Inkwell Ideas Coat of Arms Design Studio is a fast and free tool.

Other than that, these tables should get you started. For each noble house, roll for Head of Household, Alignment, Influence, Holdings, Family Size, Recent Activity, Current Ambition, and Closet Skeletons.

Head of Household

The house’s patriarch (4/6) or matriarch (2/6), who ultimately directs or approves any activity that impacts the family’s status and fortune. Roll for general age category and corresponding personality.

1: Young (d6: 1 naive; 2 bold; 3 confident; 4 fearful; 5 rash; 6 arrogant)
2-4: Middle-aged (d6: 1 calculating; 2 assertive; 3 savvy; 4 cautious; 5 aggressive; 6 bullying)
5-6: Old (d6: 1 cunning; 2 demanding; 3 prudent; 4 subtle; 5 detached ; 6 domineering)

Alignment

The noble house’s default approach toward achieving its goals; exceptions amongst individual family members may (and in fact, are likely, to) occur.

1-2: Lawful
3-5: Neutral
6: Chaotic

Influence

An aggregate measure of power, wealth, and prestige. Influence is helpful when approaching the king, dealing with other nobles, and leaning on vassals. In game terms, think of this as “What are the chances of the family achieving its goals?”. Use this to gauge the success of the noble’s plots, plans, and acquisitions. If you want to quantify influence for specific in-game ventures or your own OCD, roll 1d6 every time the noble wants to do something major (see “Current Ambitions,” below). If the result is less than his original Influence roll below, he pushes through on his plans.

1: Nil
2: Scant
3: Marginal
4: Average
5: Significant
6: Considerable

Holdings

A noble’s real estate is his holding. Roll 1d6 on the table below to see how much land the noble owns; the number in parenthesis indicates how many 5-mile hexes are under the noble’s control (though many of these hexes are likely to be unsettled wilderness). Assuming the feudal model is in use, the noble holds these lands in fief from the king, and has probably subinfeudated portions of it to vassals of his own.

1-2: Modest (1d10)
3-5: Appreciable (1d10+10)
6: Extensive (1d10+20)

Family Size

The number of relatives who can lay claim to the noble house’s resources. These are all relatives—not just immediate family. You can use this value in two ways. First, whenever you create an important NPC, check the size of noble families—it may make sense to squeeze him in as a relative (known or unknown). Second, whenever the noble needs a favour or has to draw on a connection, he’ll probably try relations before strangers—the bigger the family, the more resources he has to pick from. Whatever you do, don’t try to detail (or even identify) every family member straight away. Instead, add relatives as you need them, up to the number indicated below.

1-2: Small (2d6)
3-5: Medium (2d6+6)
6: Huge (2d6+12)

Recent Activity

These are noteworthy events in the family’s recent history that happen by circumstance (i.e., the noble doesn’t specifically set out to achieve them, like “Current Ambitions” below). Use these to put a name behind important campaign events, or to justify a family’s current outlook (e.g., Lady Merrywhite is bitterly opposed to continued skirmishes in the north because she lost all her sons in the last border war). Players can use this info as a conversation starter the next time they find themselves at court. Roll on this table based on family size (Small: 1/6, Medium: 2/6, Large: 4/6).

1: Favoured by the king for (d6: 1-2 staunch loyalty; 3-4 the Midas touch; 5-6 shrewd politicking)
2: Achieved overwhelming military victory
3: Achieved Pyrrhic military victory
4: Supported a new vassal
5: Driven out/slain marauding monster
6: Returned after adventuring expedition to (d6: 1-3 local wilderness; 4-5 king’s wilderness; 6 foreign country)
7: Captured (d6: 1-3 outlaws; 4 spies; 5 marauding monster; 6 humanoid rabble)
8: Brokered diplomatic agreement on king’s behalf (d6: 1-3 trade agreement; 4-5 mutual defence pact; 6 truce)
9: Discovered valuable commodity (d6: 1-2 precious metal; 3-5 industrial material; 6 gemstones)
10: Birth in the family
11: Death in the family (d6: 1-2 natural causes; 3-4 battle; 5 accident 6 questionable circumstances)
12: Wilderness within fief is frequented by (d6: 1-2 outlaws; 3-4 wandering monster; 5 refugees; 6 humanoid band)
13: Family member ransomed by (d6: 1-2 foreign enemy; 3-4 outlaws; 5 humanoids; 6 unknown kidnapper)
14: Participated in a duel (d6: 1-2 won; 3-4 lost; 5-6 draw)
15: Afflicted by plague
16: Adventuring family member(s) presumed lost or dead
17: Losing money as a result of (d6: 1 stolen heirloom; 2-3 bad business; 4 raiders; 5 rival noble; 6 freak accident)
18: Vassal settlement endangered by (d6: 1 attack; 2-3 plague; 4-5 low food supply; 6 bandits)
19: Suffered military defeat
20: Snubbed by king for (d6: 1-2 poor military performance; 3-4 late rents; 5-6 causing trouble at court)

Current Ambition

This is the noble’s (current) pet project. For plot purposes, it’s his primary goal, though there could be multiple motivations (e.g., money, power, favour, prestige, etc.). The noble will set about to achieve his goal will all possible haste, using all resources at his disposal. Make sure to temper roll results with the noble’s alignment (e.g., a Lawful noble will not marry for nefarious purposes of his own, but he might be the unwitting pawn in another noble’s game).

1: Support the king’s top priority plan (d6: 1-2 expansion; 3 warfare; 4-5 diplomacy; 6 rooting out dissidents)
2: Advance the church
3: Acquire more land (d6: 1-2 strategic location; 3-5 valuable resource; 6 special feature)
4: Dispose of (d6: 1-2 another noble; 3 non-secular official; 4 military officer; 5 high-level bureaucrat; 6 powerful adventurer)
5: Marry into a particular family for (d6: 1 wealth; 2 love; 3-4 political advantage; 5 lust; 6 nefarious purposes)
6: Bring about political reform
7: Bring local outlaws to justice
8: Build fortification (d6: 1-3 defensive wall; 4-5 tower; 6 keep)
9: Establish a new settlement
10: Build infrastructure (d6: 1-2 road; 3-4 bridge; 5 watch tower; 6 signal beacon)
11: Clear stain on family name
12: Make a name for the family via (d6: 1-2 adventuring/exploring; 3-4 amassing wealth; 5 military conquest; 6 political influence)

Closet Skeleton

Bumps on the road to power are the heads you have to step on to get there. These are some dirty family secrets held by one or more members of the noble house. These issues may be common knowledge within the family, but they are carefully hidden from outsiders for fear of financial or political fallout. Roll on this table based on family alignment (Lawful: 1/6, Neutral: 2/6, Chaotic: 4/6), depending on how aristocrats roll in your campaign.

1: None (outwardly, things seem a little too perfect…)
2: Engaged in treasonous activity with (d6: 1 independent; 2-3 official body; 4-5 foreign power; 6 dissident element)
3: Perpetrated and covered up a capital crime (e.g., murder, rape, arson)
4: Under the enchantment of a (d6: 1-2 cursed item; 3 sorcerer; 4 demon; 5 fey creature; 6 geas (or similar spell))
5: Manipulates the system to avoid military service
6: Supports a band of (d6: 1-3 outlaws; 4 humanoids; 5 organised thieves; 6 dangerous mercenaries)
7: Withholds the king’s fees to (d6: 1-2 amass personal hoard; 3-4 divert funds; 5 cover gambling debts; 6 pay an extortionist)
8: Sideline poacher (d6: 1-2 fish & game; 3-5 natural resource; 6 valuable commodity)
9: Afflicted with lycanthropy (or similar disease)
10: Family history of mental illness
11: Member of (d6: 1-2 death cult; 3-4 outlawed profession (e.g. sorcerer); 5-6 seditious faction)
12: Addicted to (d6: 1-2 opiate; 3-4 hallucinogen; 5 stimulant; 6 exotic drug)

Final Words

Noble houses probably do not assume a direct role in the campaign, so I’m not much interested in their stats or family trees. But nobles do have agendas, based on all kinds of motivations, and these are the bits that—as patrons, employers, foes, or allies—can influence the party’s activities. This makes them useful pieces of setting background for all kinds of campaigns. If your group is all about exploring, use nobles to sponsor PC forays; if your campaign is about urban intrigue, use nobles to drive plot; if your campaign is about dominion, use nobles as peers to help or hinder the PCs’ plans for conquest. Either way, give the tables above a few shakes and see what kind of nobles end up populating your setting.

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  1. May 12th, 2010 at 14:59 | #1

    Very nice. Though I think there should be a tired/resigned entry for the old heads of noble household.

  2. May 12th, 2010 at 15:58 | #2

    @Sean Holland : Thanks for reading. The thought occurred to me, but I figured that any noble who had led his household until old age would want to maintain some level of power until he kicked over (q.v., the Elder Bruce in Braveheart), if for no other reason than to mentor the successor. If the suggestion is to indicate a noble who’s no longer interested in being the head of the household, I’d recommend adding a “Closet Skeleton” that implies abdication.

  3. deimos3428
    May 13th, 2010 at 09:36 | #3

    For some reason, these Random articles always remind me of the tables in the 1E DMG. That’s probably a compliment, as it’s one of my favorite RPG books.

    Randomness is a funny thing. It’s terribly useful when you don’t have a starting point and need some sort of inspirational nudge, yet terribly annoying when you do have a plan into which the random elements refuse to fit. When in need of a noble, I see myself rolling many of these and selecting one from the bunch that seems appropriate to the campaign, or perhaps rolling several in advance just for that purpose. (If Inspiration Pad Pro can automate that process, that’s a huge bonus.)

    The remaining problem is the same one that afflicted the 1E DMG tables — lack of restraint in their usage. There just isn’t a table system large and complicated enough to generate something resembling realism, so if you rely too heavily on tables you end up with a sort of cartoon universe. Inevitably, some unreasonable percentage of the people walking down the street will have a dark past, or lycanthropy, etc. To combat this issue, one really needs to make many, many uninteresting characters in strict defiance of the tables.

    In this particular case, that means some nobles that lack one or more of the color features, namely “recent activity”, “current ambition”, and/or “closet skeleton”. The suggestion is not to play with the probability of the tables themselves, rather to assume that there are many more less-colorful characters in the universe that need not be sketched out in great detail and omit certain parts.

  4. May 13th, 2010 at 10:23 | #4

    Great stuff, Erin! You are:

    1 Excellent
    2 A great help for GMs
    3 Cruel to certain nobles
    4 An egg sandwich
    5 Super for using IPP
    6 Roll again twice

  5. May 13th, 2010 at 11:04 | #5

    @deimos3428 : Yup – it’s easy to get results that rapidly spin out of control (like 42% of your houses populated by were-nobles). Like you, I use these as idea starters, with the goal of pointing me in a good direction when I don’t already have one of my own. I like to see what the rolls give me; if something starts to form, I’ll pick through it and tweak.

    That said, I could see adjusting the chance of checking the Activity, Ambition, and Skeleton tables – that might make the IPP results more palatable with less manual effort. Watch this spot for an update.

    @Johnn : I keep rolling 6’s…

  6. May 13th, 2010 at 11:10 | #6

    @Sean Holland : Including “tired/resigned” as an Old personality trait is making more and more sense. Curse you, Sean, for planting this kernel in my head…

    In the meantime, I replaced “reckless” with “detached,” which I think is what you’re after?

  7. May 17th, 2010 at 03:07 | #7

    First of all, I love tables.

    Secondly, these tables are awesome. Thanks for making them available.

    -Tourq

  8. November 3rd, 2011 at 05:57 | #8

    Maybe I should translate these too …

  9. November 3rd, 2011 at 22:26 | #9

    @Benjamin : Be my guest, Benjamin. Let me know if there’s anything you need from me.

  10. Riser
    December 13th, 2011 at 04:45 | #10

    (Small: 1/6, Medium: 2/6, Large: 4/6).
    Roll on this table based on family alignment (Lawful: 1/6, Neutral: 2/6, Chaotic: 4/6), depending on how aristocrats roll in your campaign.
    how do you roll this there has been some confusion with some people they say to roll it 4 times for every 6 family members and that really just doesn’t seem right to me

  11. December 13th, 2011 at 19:38 | #11

    @Riser : You’re right: the numbers indicate the chance that you’ll roll on a certain table. For example, there is a 2-in-6 chance that a Medium-sized family rolls on the Recent Activity table, or there is a 1-in-6 chance that a Lawful family rolls on the Closet Skeleton table.

  1. May 13th, 2010 at 10:27 | #1

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