Monday, 16 April 2012

A to Z: N is for Noble

The Official Traveller Universe views the 3rd Imperium as a quasi-feudal political structure. There’s an Emperor, and a bunch of nobles, and then the planetary governments. Basically, the system, as described, is a monster-mash mess of Space Opera feudal romanticism and a late Twentieth Century Western Political World View terrified of concentrated power.

I think this mess came about because parts of the structure – the planetary governments – were designed before the in-house test game became the “Official” background.

The basic main world creation rules from LBB Traveller Book 3 assign a governmental system to each planet based on a roll of two six-sided dice on a table of results. The number rolled on the two dice can be modified by the population of the planet. This has a neat effect in that as the population rises, the governmental structure moves across the political spectrum from Anarchy to Totalitarianism, indicating that as societal interactions become more complex, governmental complexity also increases to cope with all the issues that a growing population needs resolving. This has the side-effects of constraining the amount of individual involvement in the political process, as well as curbing individual freedoms through the increase in associated Law Level.

For a fast-and-dirty Politics 101 structure, this game mechanic works well and immediately gives the Games Master a basic feel for what a particular planetary society is like.

Two things have remained constant through every version of Traveller. A Jump takes one week, whether you are moving one parsec or six parsecs (I looked at Jump Drives in my previous post on the letter J), and there is no Faster-than-Light Communication. Immediately, we have a game universe that is an Interstellar equivalent of Earth in the Age of Sail. If the Emperor wants to communicate with the Duke of Bladiblah, he has to record the message, put it on a starship heading towards Bladiblah (and being Emperor does have its advantages here, he has access to both Imperial Couriers and the Imperial Navy to carry his messages), and then wait for it to reach Bladiblah, the Duke to read it and respond, and the response to travel all the way back to the Emperor.

As the 3rd Imperium contains something like 11,000 systems, the frontiers of the Spinward March (one of the earliest official campaign settings) are something like a year’s travel time from the Imperial capital, or a two-year round trip. This is equivalent to the travel times involved in administering most of the major historical Naval Empires – the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British – and many of the land Empires, such as the Russian, the Mongol, the Moghul, and the Roman, on Earth.

In all cases, Empires coped with the lag in communication by creating administrative sub-units. These sub-units were administrated by local commanders, acting with the delegated authority of the central government. In many cases, these administrative posts became hereditary and either created administrative dynasties, or passed into the hands of existing dynastic power groups. In the Official Traveller Universe, the 3rd Imperium is divided into seven Domains – Deneb, Vland, Antares, Sylea, Gateway, Ilelish, and Sol – each under an Archduke. Each Domain consists of four Sectors – each under a Sector Duke – and each Sector consists of 16 Subsectors – under a Subsector Duke.

Nobility can be hereditary or awarded for service – honour nobles. We are familiar with honour nobles as these are the people who appear in the Queen’s Honours list, published twice a year, who become a knight for “services to the community” or “services to banking and international finance”. Apart from getting a place on the Board, and appearing as a patron of a charity, honour nobility is just that, an honour, and of little political significance. Hereditary Nobility, on the hand, recognises an accretion of wealth and/or power that is passed down through a family line. It is also a matter of personal and familial honour and service to the ideal and person of the Imperium and the Emperor.

This is something we find difficult to understand these days, with transient political leaders who seem more interested in self-promotion and self-enrichment, than in genuine service, but if you read the letters and diaries of members of the nobility up into the early Nineteenth Century, you find a caste of people who literally believed themselves born to rule, and to serve, and the service part of the equation was as important as the rewards that we tend to focus upon nowadays. Yes, there were idiots, and schemers, and rogues, and thieves amongst them, and these people seem to get all the press in our post-revolutionary present day, but there were also countless members of the nobility who served at home and abroad doing those things that career military officers and diplomats do today. And part of their education was to act as the representative of the King or Emperor in every situation they found themselves in.

If we consider the Imperial Nobility from this point of view, then the division of the Imperium into Domains, Sectors and Subsectors makes sense. Below the Subsector Ducal level, there are Marquis’, Counts and Barons as rulers of planetary systems or groups of systems (the term “fief”, though archaic, makes sense to describe these smaller subdivisions). And it’s at this point that the two governance design systems appear to run headlong into each other.

Thinking about the situation, I wondered if I was looking at it the wrong way. Rolling up a government in the usual, approved, way, gives one a feeling of “ownership” for the government – that the government is the legitimate authority on the planet. This feeling of ownership then becomes conflicted when one imposes a planetary noble over the heads of the government. Except ... what if we are assuming that the planetary government precedes the imposition of the noble house.

What if the granting of the world as a fief to a Noble House was the catalyst for the settlement of that world and, in the most part, the settlers of that world were either granted a form of government, or negotiated a government, with the Noble House holding the Writ or Deed of Settlement? During the establishment of the early British settlements in North America, King James, or the Crown of Britain, would issue a Writ to a consortium of noble Merchant Adventurers to establish a colony. It would then become their responsibility to secure sufficient funds and settlers to make the colony viable. When attempting to attract settlers, whether free or unfree, there had to be something in the deal for them as well. For small holders, it was a chance to improve their lot; for indentured servants, there was the chance to secure their freedom; and for the stakeholders and stockholders in the settlement company, there was the chance to make a fortune. This is part of the model I have used for my own RimWorlds campaign, as readers of my historical posts will be aware (the other part of the model is the bucellarii of Belisarius and/or the comitatus relationship structure practised by the Classical and Early Medieval Germans – both of which form the basis of what later became known as the feudal system).

I think that if viewed in this fashion, then the Science-Fiction-Feudal model of government, as suggested in Traveller, works – where you have planetary democracies, they function much like Constitutional Monarchies in that the Parliament can advise the planetary noble, but he or she makes the ultimate decisions on governance, while deferring to planetary law in matters where he or she is displeased. More totalitarian forms of government would indicate more direct rule by the planetary noble, while loser forms of government would indicate a “planetary moot”, everyone gets to make their point, and the noble is advised by a group of respected, and/or trusted, advisers.

And while the goal of the Noble is to rule wisely and well, ultimately, he or she is looking to the future of the dynasty. Houses can fall, by losing the trust of their people, or the trust of those that placed them where they are, but Houses can rise as well. Good service is rewarded by those who see the good.


  1. I agree- it is a duality that be difficult to get one's head around at times, and how the interactions would effectively take place.

  2. I may be missing something here. If a Jump is always one week then how can these places be a year's worth of travel away? I know that you have to be a respectable distance away from gravity wells to jump but does that increase the travel time by that much? Perhaps their non-jump travel is far slower than I thought.

    1. Hi Red Hobbit - sorry, my text is a little unclear. A Jump always takes one week and can range between 1 and 6 parsecs, depending on the rating of the Jump Drive - a Jump 1 drive can only move a ship 1 parsec per jump while a Jump 6 ship can move a ship up to 6 parsecs per week.

      Jump fuel (hydrogen) takes up 10% of the ships volume times Jump Number, so our Jump 6 ship is 60% fuel, with all the rest of the components, and the crew, crammed into the remaining 40% of the ship. Standard Imperial Warships are usually Jump 4, while Fast Couriers are Jump 5 or Jump 6.

      In that star map above (third picture from the top) each of those squares is a Sector - an area of space 32 parsecs wide and 40 parsecs tall. The Capital of the Imperium is in the sector 9 squares from the left and 4 squares down. The Spinward March is at 5 squares from the left and three down (about 5 sectors from the Capital). This puts the Spinward March approximately 160 parsecs from Capital (it's actually further as ships have to follow stellar topology and go where the fuel is). In a Jump 4 ship, this would take 40 Jumps or about 70 - 80 weeks one way (allowing one week in Jump Space and one week entering a system and refueling and leaving again).

      Figures are very rough but I hope that gives you an idea of the scale.

    2. Ah I see. I was operating under the simplistic assumption that a Jump would take you anywhere in the known galaxy but would always take a weeks time. Thanks for the detailed response of course. I never gave traveling rules more than a cursory glance in other systems but in a game like Traveller they seem absolutely integral to the setting.

      Very interesting.

    3. Yes, travel times are very much the flavour for Traveller and, yes, it's possible to get up to mischief on one world, get the heck out of Dodge, and literally stay just ahead of the information wavefront telling all and sundry that you're a villain. Again, this adds to the Age of Sail feel of the game.

      Interstellar banking is something that comes up from time to time on Traveller discussion boards - the upshot is that methods from Renaissance, such as carrying specie aboard your ship for trading, or the letter of credit, or letter of introduction (possibly in a higher tech form) are likely to make a reappearance as verification times would prove impracticable for traders and business people.