Thought on Role-Playing Knights and Knighthood

(This is an improved, edited version of a post I did on Stratics.)

You might've heard a nasty rumor, that goes something like this....

The myths of Knights and Knighthood are frauds and lies. Real Knights were vile, evil people at worst, or selfishly pragmatic to the point of evil at best – hypocrites who oppressed peasants. Chivalry never really existed, or if it did, it mostly was about class warfare – the upper class against the rest of us. Knightly skill in battle was also a lie – the Knights won in battle by mere ferocity, not skill. Medieval fantasies of noble Knights are just that: fantasies at best, lies at worst. You see this view of Knights all over the place, from the “Medieval Lives” documentary series to “Game of Thrones” (television series and book series).

Sadly, I must admit there is some truth to this rumor. Some.

Therefore, despite the Knight's iconic status in fantasy, you might feel hesitant to roleplay a Knight in UO. After all you have other options for good guy fantasy archetypes, without the historical baggage. So why bother with Knights?

Well...I was pleased to learn, after extensive reading, that the old myths and legends are also partly true. That through the years we've over-compensated for the partially-negative truth by making things out to be worse than they were, and by forgetting that the good parts existed. But, exist they did. Knights and Chivalry were real, and class solidarity among the Knights was only part of Chivalry, not the whole story. Gallantry, honor, battlefield prowess, loyalty, all were real. Knightly combat was as much as or more about skill than mere ferocity. There were many detailed treatises on Knightly combat that have survived and there likely were a lot more, older treatises that didn't survive. Knights did oppress peasants, but also felt they owed those same peasants their protection and their best efforts to be responsible rulers. There were detailed treatises on that stuff too – essentially “how to take care of the peasants while oppressing them, and how to oppress the peasants while taking care of them.” The Medieval mind just didn't see the contradiction the way we should. But the point is that the Good existed.

You need not apologize for playing a Knight. You need not feel hypocritical for utilizing this important fantasy archetype to RP a character. This article seeks to provide some food for thought for those of you who choose to do just that.

So let's start at the beginning....

What is a Knight?

Knight” is a European term, but many other Ancient or Medieval cultures (India, Japan, Mexico, Middle East, Rome, etc.) had something very similar. Through my reading I've identified some common elements among all these groups and, as it turns out, a lot of those common elements make good RP inspiration. (Please note that when you do you're own historical reading you'll find that not all writers agree with me on what these common elements are, or if they exist at all.)

--Knights, first and foremost, were elite warriors. Fighting and killing was their job, and they were good at it. (Note that I'm excluding one important thing from consideration here: The horse.)

--Knights were are official in some way. They were authorized and certified to fight and kill by some authority like a government, a church, or something like that. Or, they WERE that authority. (Outlaw and Knight usually are different fantasy archetypes, though of course you may have a character that begins as one, and becomes the other over time – like some of the Robin Hood stories. Ancient China also had one fascinating, very much real warrior class that combined both in a way that can really fire the fantasy imagination....But I'm not writing about them today.)

--Knights tried very hard to follow a code of conduct that incorporated loyalty, honor, and battlefield prowess.

--The complex web of competing loyalties and values in the Knights' culture could be difficult to navigate, and sometimes one value had to be placed over another. You could pretty much say that the heart of Knightly Chivalry was learning how to navigate these conflicting loyalties.

OK, now I'll go over these characteristics each in turn and try to give you some RP inspiration, grounded in each characteristic.

Elite Warrior:

In a UO context this might just mean that your character is better than the NPCs, so I'm not saying that only the very best players with the very best characters should bother trying to be Knights. Even among Knights, some were better than others, and that's ok. (Though I do encourage you to push your and your Knightly character's gameplay abilities – be as best as you can especially when you're playing your Knight.)

Everything I've read suggests that being an elite warrior was part of the Knights' collective self-identity. Therefore, your character's relationship to the battlefield prowess expected of Knights might be important to his or her character and might lead to some interesting roleplay opportunities. Further, in real life, Knights' belief in their own prowess led some to indiscipline and foolishness on the battlefield – and a sense of Pride that might, in UO put them in stark contrast to the Virtue of Humility.


Some body, group, or power gave your Knight his or her the right to be one. For example, the Crown itself, or perhaps a Church, a town, or a recognized territory. Your Knight might be a servant of some higher authority, or might actually BE that higher authority (in real life, in Europe and Japan at least, the Knights were the rulers), or at least might represent that higher authority. You should work out which it is. A Knight that's a servant of a higher authority might behave differently than one who IS a higher authority, someplace. (“Where I come from I am a Lord. You are a Lord nowhere. I need not bow to you, anywhere.” “Where you come from, you are a Lord. Here in Nujel'M, you are no one, and I stand for the Sultan of Nujel'M. You will bow, as you would for the Sultan.”)

Here are some examples, from both fantasy and history, of Knights bound to serve a higher authority.

--Charlemagne's Paladins (fantasy)

--Housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England (history)

--Mamluks of the Medieval Middle East (history – indeed these warriors legally were slaves)

--Dupre the Paladin (fantasy – seemed good to have an Ultima-specific example)


  • (And now part 2)

    --The King's Guard of Westeros (fantasy)

    And here are some examples, from both fantasy and history, of Knights who WERE that higher authority.

    --King Arthur (fantasy)

    --King Richard “The Lion Heart” (history)

    --Queen Dawn (fantasy – seemed good to have an Ultima-specific example)

    --The Kshatriya of India (history)

    --Aragorn, son of Arathorn (fantasy)

    What authority conferred your character's Knighthood? Why, by who, how, and under what circumstances was this done? Is it hereditary – in other words are you a Knight only because someone in your family was, or have you earned the title in some way? Was it both? Was your character Knighted in battle? By another Knight? By a King? Was there a ceremony? Is your Knight not a Knight yet, but rather a Squire, Page, or Apprentice? Does your knight have political or religious power or authority in his or her own right? Or is he or she a servant? Does whatever power that conferred your Knight's authority still exist, or do you serve a fallen King or Lord? Are you one of those rare Knights who's also a slave, or bound in some other way, such as by magic, promise, or law?

    Code of Conduct:

    In Europe this was called “Chivalry.” Other cultures had different names for the Knightly code of conduct (to the West, the most-common non-European name is “Bushido,” which of course we have here in UO by way of Tokuno), but they all had some common threads: honor, loyalty, and battlefield prowess. In Europe Chivalry was never formally codified, but many Knights wrote their own manuals – and what exactly the rules of Chivalry were was hotly debated. (Conquistadors used to use Chivalry to justify their suppression of the native peoples of the Americas – their critics in Europe used Chivalry to criticize them.)

    Honor in this context means about the same thing that it does in UO, fittingly enough: When you possess it, all may rely on your every word. When Knights say they'll kill you they'll try hard to do it. If they say they won't kill you, they'll try hard to avoid it. (But, please, do not test their patience.) In one famous real life incident, a Knight who had vowed never to take up arms against a certain enemy instead led his men into battle unarmed and unarmored, waving a flag. He was cut down by the initial gun barrage and arrow storm, and died either a hero or a joke, depending on your point of view.

    Loyalty in this context usually means loyalty to whatever authority it is that conferred Knighthood upon the Knight, and loyalty to the broader set of principles or ideas which help to define the Knight's character as a Knight. Sometimes it also can mean loyalty to other things – a lover or spouse, for example. The people. The land. Long-forgotten vows of revenge. As you can see, it can be shockingly easy for these loyalties to come into conflict. And that conflict can be a great source of RP for your character. (See below.)

    Finally, battlefield prowess: in theory it should be extremely important to your Knight's identity that he or she is a good warrior. Maybe even a great one. Sometimes, in real life, Knights' belief in themselves and their prowess could lead to what in UO terms we would call the Sin of Pride. This of course sets up a conflict with the Virtue of Humility, and the Virtue of Honesty as well. Anyone remember “Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar?” What was the correct answer when someone asked you if you were the “most valiant of souls?” What answer might your Knight give? And why.

    Which brings us to the final characteristic under consideration.....

    Conflicts between loyalties:

    Sometimes a Knight has to make an unpleasant choice between two, or more, things he or she holds dear. In UO, for example, what does one do when Valor demands one thing, and Honor demands another? For another example, in real life it wouldn't be without precedent for a Knight to pledge him- or herself to two lords who now find themselves at war. Chivalric loyalty could get complicated.

    One common thing you see in modern fiction is the idea that a Knight's loyalty to the truth can conflict with his or her loyalty to whatever practical goal he or she is seeking. Lie and save the Kingdom, or tell the truth and endanger it? The movie “Kingdom of Heaven” has an example of this. A famous bit of Ancient Roman history or myth (we honestly don't know which) called “The Dilemma of Regulus” is another example. Medieval European stories were particularly fond of forcing Knights to choose between loyalty to a romantic interest and loyalty to a Lord or ruler. The apex of this of course was the great love triangle of Queen Guenivere, King Arthur, and Sir Lancelot, in the King Arthur myths, which in most versions of the story destroys all three of them, and the Kingdom itself.

    Both real life and mythological Knights, it seems to me, often would rely on their combat prowess to, literally, fight their way through conflicting loyalties. A conversation between two characters on “Game of Thrones” who were NOT Knights actually crystallized this pretty well. Facing a difficult choice, one character proposed a certain course of action. “What you propose is illegal,” he was told. “Only if we lose,” was the response.

    The Knightly version of this in a UO context might be something like this: “Shall we save Cove, or save Minoc?” “Attack the enemy before he gets here. If we win, we save them both.” “But if we lose, we save neither.” “Then we shall not lose.”

    I'd urge you to not overdo the conflict factor by the way. Many fictional stories of Knights are tragic, and “Game of Thrones” has, I feel, injected too much tragedy into modern fantasy. Not every story has to be tragic. Not every Chivalric decision has to be impossible. Not everything has to cost something.

    But, hey, it's your character, not mine.....

    One last point...

    This isn't exclusively related to playing Knights, but now is a great time to mention it: Good doesn't mean stupid, at least not always. In Medieval Europe, at least, Knights were often educated, especially in military matters. (They were usually filthy rich, and could afford the best education available.) Your Knight doesn't have to believe everything he's told, and doesn't have to go on a suicide mission when another option is available.

    So if you think being a good Knight means being required to be as tactically incompetent as Jon Snow from “Game of Thrones?” (Hey, Jon: You're not smarter than Ramsey Bolton. You are, however, smart enough to know that. So stop thinking you can outsmart him, and start thinking about how to win without having to.) Well, you're wrong. I can't tell you how to play your character (if you want to play an idiot, feel free) but if you feel obligated to play your Knight, or other good guy character, as stupid because you've seen “Spaceballs” or “Game of Thrones?” I'm happy to tell you that you're wrong.

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