This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue.
It is often seen in Traveller that there is something of an overabundance of nobles among player-characters; on an initial roll of 2D for SOC, one character in twelve (any roll of 11 or 12) starts out with noble rank, and there are several careers that offer +1 SOC as a benefit of achieving rank or other improvement, meaning that characters rolled with SOC 10 or even SOC 9 can easily rise into the ranks of the nobility. We thus often find ourselves, as referees and as players, pressed to explain this, and to explain why a noble as such would be adventuring.
In such explanation, we often resort to such tired old clichés as the heir of the dissolute fiefholder seeking to find a way to repair the fortunes of the holding — or at least stave off some disaster; as the deposed fiefholder seeking to regain control over his fief; as the disgraced heir-potential turned ‘remittance man’, et multae alia.
There are several ways that one can address this problem; this article will explore some of them. Before doing so, however, the author’s understanding of nobility in Traveller should be set out clearly, so as to avoid confusion.
Nobility in the Third Imperium setting is modeled primarily on the popular perception of that of the British Empire: that is, the Emperor is the fons honorum (fount of all honor), and no person is a noble unless so declared by the Emperor. (In the case of hereditary nobles, the declaration is not made specifically of each heir, but rather at the time of the original creation of the title, specifying that the title may be inherited, and how.)
In theory, noblesse oblige applies; that is, in addition to their privileges, the nobility have obligations to the Emperor and to those below them, including the common people of the Imperium and its member worlds. In practice, we’ve seen that this is weak at best; a serious belief in those obligations would have prevented the Rebellion.
The “standard model” of nobility in the Third Imperium admits of three groups of nobles:
Hereditary nobles are those whose titles are both hereditary and carry a vote in the Moot, and in addition include a tenure, or “grant of land” or “fief” (called tenure per baroniam, but it includes noble ranks higher than “Baron”). Historically, this carried the additional obligation of personal military service, including an entourage of defined size, all fully equipped, the costs of which were supported from the holding’s production; it was often permitted to “buy out” the actual service with a fee (scutage) that would permit the hiring of mercenaries to replace the fiefholder and entourage in the suzerain’s forces. In the Third Imperium, holdings may still technically be tenure per baroniam, but with the Imperium maintaining a principally voluntary and professionalized military establishment, most Imperial noble holdings (essentially all that are not on a frontier) are in effect tenure by fee-farm (where the holding noble has the right to collect and retain revenue from the holding, in exchange for sending a fixed amount on to the Imperial Treasury) or tenure by socage (where the holding noble does not have the unrestricted right to “farm” the holding for revenue, but may only collect what must be remitted to the Imperial Treasury, plus a fixed amount for supporting the holding itself);
Honor nobles are those who receive titles (and perhaps small stipends) for singular service or achievement, but whose titles neither are hereditary nor carry a vote in the Moot; and
Administrative nobles are Imperial bureaucracy officials or high-ranking military officers whose noble titles are strictly associated with the duties they are performing, carry neither stipend nor a vote in the Moot, and are granted so that they may perform the duties of their military or bureaucratic assignment without being at legal or social disadvantage relative to Honor nobles or Hereditary nobles that they may find it necessary to give direction to (or otherwise interact with, e.g., in negotiating procurement contracts).
If we assume that a player-character who is a noble is either an Honor noble or a retired Administrative noble (and allowed to continue to use emeritus the title as a courtesy), we may, for the most part, ignore the fact of the character’s noble status, except where it provides advantage relevant to the adventure, e.g., interactions with other Administrative nobles or bureaucrats in general. This is, of course, the simplest “solution” to the dilemma – but it’s not really interesting.
A more interesting “solution”, with more opportunities for adventure, however, would be to change the nature of Hereditary nobility.
In accepting the Emperor as the sole source of noble grants (fons honorum), we limit our Hereditary nobles to being nobles in capite. Because of the size of the Imperium, that effectively limits us to the traditional type of noble, whose tenure is per baroniam, (or by fee-farm or socage, as discussed above). (We will refer to these nobles as nobles-in-capite henceforth.)
Instead, let us change the nature of nobility to allow any hereditary noble to create nobles of lower rank. Only nobles-in-capite have a seat in the Moot, and all will hold per baroniam, by fee-farm, or by socage. Other nobles will not hold the right to a seat in the Moot, and may be subinfeudated (hold a subordinated tenure) to a noble-in-capite by those same tenures (which will generally include a right and obligation to advise their feoffor in council), but there are other possible tenures that are available for subinfeudation:
Tenure by copyhold is a negotiated agreement between the feoffor and the subinfeudee, wherein the tenure is in exchange for service (other than military service) particular to the needs of the feoffor’s holding and/or payment in cash or kind (cash, here, refers to payment in any form of lawful money, not just specifically currency or specie; kind refers to payment in any other form, usually some specific amount or valuation of product of the holding). The negotiated agreement may or may not include the right or obligation of the subinfeudee to advise the feoffor in council. This offers some limited opportunity for adventure, depending on the nature of the service written into the grant of copyhold.
If you permit your version of the Imperium to have Established Churches, either on an Imperium-wide basis or locally on a system similar to cuius regio eius religio, the option of tenure by a modified form of frankalmoinage exists. In the standard form of frankalmoinage, the church is granted the holding with no obligation other than to pray for the soul of the feoffor; the modified form envisaged here would include elements of a copyhold where the requirement is for religion-related services, e.g., establishing a monastic community, establishing churches (worship halls) throughout the feoffor’s holdings, creation and operation of schools under the auspices of the church, etc. Adventure opportunities are not immediately apparent, but perhaps an imaginative referee can come up with something.
Tenure by serjeanty covers most non-standard service that is outside the definition of socage or copyhold, but is most often seen as requiring personal and/or ceremonial service by the subinfeudee to the feoffor in his person (as contrasted with service in support of the holding). The details of such a tenure may be established by a whim of the feoffor, and need not actually be an honor to perform (for example, there is a serjeanty documented for Russel of Hemmingford where the service performed is to “on Christmas Day, every year, before … the King … he should perform altogether and once, a Leap, a Puff, and a Fart…”); in such cases, the subinfeudee may be permitted to so plead and offer to “buy off” the service in some preferable form. Serjeanties offer the best opportunities for adventure, as the conditions of the serjeanty service can be written in as much or as little detail as desired, and it is in the details that adventure may be found.
One can, of course, go in a completely different direction, and detach “nobility” entirely from the idea of titles, fiefs, et cetera. For such models, there are two general classifications that come to mind:
Nobility of Wealth simply associates high social status with the ability to sustain an “appropriate” lifestyle. The elements of such a lifestyle may vary; some aspects may include such things as frequent travel to “interesting” or “appropriate” destinations, a large corps of personal servants (often of notable skill within the area of their responsibilities), “gracious” manners, purchase and use of goods of the finest quality, possibly commissioned or “bespoke”, and so on. It should be noted that Nobility of Wealth often divides itself into two sub-classes; the “true” Nobility of Wealth are those who inherit their wealth, generally from several generations back; the “New Rich” (Nouveau Riche) are looked down on by them, as their wealth is comparatively recent, and often (horrors!) earned in a trade or in business. It should be noted that there are often significant differences in the details of the lifestyles practiced by “Old Money” vs “New Rich”.
Nobility of Fame associates high social status with being known (recognized) by many people, and possibly viewed as a role model by them. It is not uncommon for the famous to also have significant wealth, but it is the details of the lifestyle that distinguish the wealthy Noble of Fame from the Noble of Wealth. Specifically, behavior by Nobles of Fame designed to keep the Noble in the public notice is often considered “déclassé” by the Nobles of Wealth (even the “New Rich”), or even outrageous by the standards of the people that they stay “on stage” for (consider some of the public behavior [and in some cases, the reputed private behavior] of celebrities from “show business”, or those that seem to be “famous for being famous”).
(It should be noted that Independence Games’ Clement Sector setting practices this decoupling, associating social status with wealth.)
Both Nobility of Wealth and Nobility of Fame offer opportunities for adventuring, without the necessity of contorted rationalizing. In the case of “Old Money”, some sort of rationalization may be necessary; after all, “the Quality people simply don’t do such things” – although (e.g.,) a safari, quite a reasonable part of the lifestyle, could turn into an adventure quite easily. For the “New Rich”, some aspect of the profit motive may be all that’s needed; just because someone has money doesn’t mean they don’t want more, or they may enjoy the challenges of running a business (consider such wealthy individuals as Warren Buffet or Donald Trump).