Lords Valiant And Dastardly: A Backcountry Minor Noble House Of Cormyr
Here are some notes to myself from September of 1969: “Detail a small and simple family; their holdings, their interests, why they might hire adventures, how they might come into conflict with adventurers, their main feuds, who their allies are at court, how they’re regarded by the Crown.”
Yes, 1969. There were “adventurers” before D&D® . . . Conan The Adventurer was the title of a 1966 short story collection published by Lancer Books and edited by L. Sprague de Camp, who edited Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and added some of his own; it was graced with a now-iconic Frazetta “brooding Conan leaning on his sword as he stands on a heap of the fallen portrait” cover.
I followed those notes close to forty times before TSR asked for the flood of Realmslore in 1986, not that most gamers have ever seen the results; somehow, a “Nobles of Cormyr” sourcebook never made it into print.
So let me share just one minor noble house (why minor? Well, you probably haven’t heard of them before, so they’ve got to be minor) with you, to demonstrate how I began. Not how I do it, because I am a crazy completist and have devoted fifty years (thus far) to scribbling endless details of the Realms to create what I call “Realmslore,” but how DMs with a more, er, usual amount of leisure time might best go about it.
The rabbit hole many DMs fall down is to detail endless family trees stretching back through the misty past. They get bogged down doing this, and either give up or transform creative fun into frustration. Avoid that trap; all we need is a line or two about famous ancestors (if any!) and how the family sees itself (“we’re an old, proud house who were there when this realm was founded”) and any recent deaths that play into feuds or unfinished quests/tasks/searches for the dead forebearer’s treasure whether or not the family is out of favor with the Crown. That’s it for the past. (Note that writing extensive lineages is fine when we’re talking about ruling families of countries, as it provides a backbone for describing the history of a realm; here, I’m talking about nobles who haven’t managed to get onto thrones. At least recently.)
We need to know who heads the family right now—and while we’re describing “right now,” we should also note down who really holds sway in the family, who the enforcers and/or movers-and-shakers in the family are (if any), and who the black sheep are (ditto).
Beyond that, we need to craft a very simple list of entries: estate/country seat (name, location, what’s done there [does the family have industries beyond “home farming” and if so, where are they centered?] and anything distinctive, like a fortified castle or a widely-known-to-be-haunted-or-associated-with-not-yet-found-hidden-treasure locale); city mansions, if any (name, street address, anything distinctive); what the family makes coin doing/owning/investing in; heraldry (blazon, colors, badges, motto); and anything distinctive about prominent family members (hobbies, quirks, traits).
Distinctive? Quirks and traits? Well, here’s a sample Oldcastle family member: “Ralangar Oldcastle breeds racing falcons and collects erotic statuettes, is fat but still fancies himself agile and dashing and dresses and acts accordingly; is proud of his lopsided “corkscrew” moustache; always wears a monocle, and loves jests, even at his own expense; he’s far less stiff and proud than most nobles of his generation.”
In other words, we’re creating something for the DM to bring to life as a character, and enough for the DM to know how the noble house, or particular nobles, are likely to interact with the PCs (or cause, by reputation or actions, the PCs to avoid them or otherwise alter their own behavior).
And that’s it, all that’s necessary, until the DM crafts specific encounters or events involving particular nobles, that will involve them in the unfolding action of the campaign (and not just onstage, with the PCs, but offstage: the social whirl that PCs aren’t present at, but that they hear about in gossip and news).
So let’s take five minutes and flesh out the Oldcastles.
Their colors are royal purple (representing loyalty to the Purple Dragon; the Oldcastles rose from loyal bodyguards of earlier Obarskyr kings, first entering surviving written records in the reign of Duar, but not being ennobled until the reign of Foril) and gray: a single squat but tapering inwards as it rises, three-toothed [tri-creneled] stone castle tower [think a chess rook] on a field of royal purple. Their badge (seen on tabards worn as livery by their servants, and on the doors of their coaches) is the same tower outlined in a royal purple border. Their motto is “Steadfast And Loyal We Endure.” They “home farm” at their country seat [that is, their estate-dwelling servants grow food for themselves and the Oldcastles on the grounds of The Old Castle, where these same servants live]. The noble family also oversee, on the estate, the brewing of ale and the vintning of their own wines, but are neither connoisseurs or collectors.
The Oldcastles also invest, still in north-of-the-Moonsea mining, but also in quarrying building stone in western Cormyr, in building (city houses and “high street” shops in towns and villages all across Cormyr) and in re-roofing existing buildings in slate. Increasingly, they are investing in rental properties, as landlords.
The noble family has, as most Cormyrean nobles do, a Suzailan tallhouse (grand and four- or five-floor but fairly small-footprint city house, near the Promenade or due west of the western end of the Promenade; only the most senior or wealthy houses own walled mansions in the northernmost part of the city, because there just isn’t room to build more); theirs is the five-floor-plus-servants’-attic Sarlbanners (named for the man who caused it to be built, Lord Sarl Oldcastle, a long-dead head of the family whose shrewd Sembian investments, in companies mining near Glister, made the fortunes of the Oldcastles), and stands on southfront Alambeir Street (“southfront” means fronting on the south side of the street; Suzail street names are a topic more than ample enough to fill another column).
The Oldcastles also have a country seat, a modest estate in the countryside not far southwest of Dreamer’s Rock, known nowadays as The Old Castle, as it’s a small but massive stone castle that could readily be defended (it once belonged to House Bleth, one of the disgraced and exiled noble families stripped of their lands in the wake of the Abraxus Affair [events seen unfolding in Cormyr: A Novel, a book I penned with Jeff Grubb back in 1996]).
Our fat friend Ralangar isn’t the head of the house, he’s the gossipy old “elder uncle” sort of noble, the sort who sit around Suzail’s more exclusive clubs and finer eateries swilling wine and moaning about how the realm isn’t what it was back in his younger days. He loves to meet strangers, leer at women, and talk, so he’s both the sort of noble the PCs might notice and get a chance to talk to, and the sort of Oldcastle the patriarch might call on to act as a go-between or hirer of PC and NPC “lowlives” to do something unpleasant or dangerous House Oldcastle wants done, especially if they must keep their patrician hands clean and not do that something themselves (and have what’s called “plausible deniability” in our real world, these days, if said PCs get caught and identify their employers; in the Realms, this is “standing under the lantern” so as not to get involved in “shadywork.”). The sort of shadywork the Oldcastles or any noble house might want to employ others to do could be anything involving lawbreaking, violence, or other unpleasantness that might sully their social standing or their favor at court, or just consume their idle time with actual, gasp, sustained hard work. However, this isn’t a villainous noble house; Ralangar is the closest thing to a “black sheep” the family can muster.
The head of the house is Lord Embrazarl Oldcastle, a stern guarded-tongue man who never forgets a name, face, or noticed detail (and the man has eyes like a hawk).
He’s married to Lady Sarrasaerue Oldcastle, a plump, kindly, affectionate woman who sees to everything domestic with grace, tireless energy, and a buoyant good humor that has her servants devoted to her. A former sultry, wanton beauty, she’s withdrawn into a motherly public persona since gaining weight and years, but in private is as passionate as ever; Embrazarl is still smitten by her and ruled by her (she alone can change his mood and opinions, at will). And she’s secretly a shrewd judge of individuals and like her husband, one of those always-alert people who notices details (from fleeting facial expressions to what knickknacks were lying around on a table at a noisy, crowded feast) and never forgets them; “Lady Saroo” knows the names of scores of Suzailans, high and low, and who they’re related to, not to mention their social standing.
Lord and Lady Oldcastle see themselves as one of the quiet minority of nobles who are loyal to the laws of Cormyr and the idea of a Forest Kingdom with an Obarskyr on the throne who is faithful to nobles who are faithful to him or her; they do not seek to change the ruling family or make great changes in the way things work in the realm. They are loyal, and prudent; part of the “backbone” of the land.
Ralangar is Embrazarl’s sole surviving younger brother (the deaths of the other two are never spoken of), has never married (there are rumors about scores of liaisons, in his younger days, with possible bastard offspring) and is officially childless. No hints of possible indiscretions (nor, obviously, any bastards) cling to Embrazarl and Sarrasaerue, who have three almost-adult children of their own: from eldest to youngest, their heir Sandomar (a handsome, stern, straight-laced and rather dull-witted physical echo of his father), second son Mandrar (a starting-to-get-fat young, amiable giant of a man; a prodigious drinker when out with friends, much given to jests and gossip and dreams of very different futures for Cormyr and himself), and daughter Marilda (an impishly pranksome, darkly beautiful, worldly scamp who knows and hears far more than she lets on, and is learning all she can of Suzail’s wealthy and nobility, with an eye to forging an interesting and wealthy life of her own through doing the right things at the right times).
As you can see, I can’t resist embellishing the bare bones so as to festoon the skeleton with story hooks, but even I can stop here, for now (meaning, until I need the Oldcastles for something) and move on to the next noble house. Cormyr has scores of them.
One more reason worldbuilding is never done. Though it bears repeating: any invented setting is, at its heart, people (human or not; the important characters) more than it is geography. Or should be.